Himmelveil's Mightiest Heroes

Silvers typed letter to the Empress


Hey V, I know this should be far more formal, but we’ve never been formal you know, or-at-least-like, that, with you. This - typed letter is- writing is a convenience for the “historical record” we will discuss in person how the kids and consort are doing, ha its weird to call “Vis” the consort, im used to calling the queen mother that.

So brief catchup just in case things fell between the sunken and soft places over the years. I am Celebruscien Goodfellow, demi-godess of time and space. Your taking of the throne appears commonly from my own knowledge, this occurs in around this time in almost half of all timelines I’ve personally visited. And ive- glimpsed- seen I hate this machine, many. Give me carbon and papyrus any day

My father showed up and that means change is afoot, trust half of what he shows you and half again what he tells you, he has never been shown to be malevolent to the mortal races but his motives and words often obfuscate any truth. Just know that he doesnt want the mortal races to end because with nobody to worship him his own divine being would cease.

I’m demanding double drills from all my soldiers, and demanding them to eat double rations. If the titans bring their full armies to bear my troops wont stand a chance, with me on the field my soldiers can defeat any non magical trooops in one one combat but we’ve almost no extra chance against any capable of flame and frost, but better for them to die hopeful and with full bellies protecting their loved ones than starving in the streets and despair, hopefully we react quickly enough that neither happens but unlike my father I can only ever see glimpses.

My father claims in the other world I am married to a human man. He’s never once questioned the love between you and Vis, I hope that in his best of all possible worlds we might both be happy. With our choices in life.

This peasant, child and brute he is recruiting he thinks can save both of our worlds, and I hope they can. I’ll try to alter the timelines as much as I can I can so that we win but I can’t guarantee it. On one hand I like surprises on the others, these aren’t the surprises I like.

Asa, dad says is meant to be our leader. I will actively challenge him for that role if he ever seems reluctant. He better prove himself one or I will gladly drag him along by those pretty blonde bangs. I wont risk lives due to hesitation. If he acts, I’ll follow him into the breach. But I wont suffer some coward peasant just because hes “destined” regardless of what my father says. Leaders lead. A trait -your- you and your fathers sweeping reforms proved.

Its time we get ready, see you soon.

After Camborath

The clunk and clatter of the vase hitting the stone floor erupted into a shatter that sounded through the whole room. It was a small room on the upper floor of the mansion, but it had a balcony overlooking the garden. The bed was wide enough for two, but the space around it was a path for one with furniture on every side. The vase had been empty, normally it held water to pour into a basin on the vanity, but usually she didn’t fill it until the morning. Her wings folded behind her as she sat with her head in her hands. Tears had welled up in her face that was red with anger.

“What’s wrong?” Baldir’s voice was gentle. He knew what was wrong. He’d been there.

She didn’t speak. Her wings unfolded enough to wrap around her, covering her face from his view.

He came into the room and closed the door behind him. He didn’t speak either. His armor still had splotches of blood on it from the Red Dragon. He took off his brilliantly bejeweled helm and placed it on the mannequin beside the bed. He took his axe out of his belt, the dragon’s bane, and placed it on the hooks he kept on the wall over the chest of drawers.

Jarnborn hung below it, resting there. He unclasped his gauntlets and placed them on the chest of drawers. Next came his belt. Then the straps of the pauldrons, breastplate, greaves. Piece by piece he took his armor off, cleaned it, and placed it on the mannequin.
Half the hour had passed, and still, she hadn’t spoken.

He couldn’t help the smile hitting the corners of his mouth. Oh how he had missed her. The silence was what she needed. She would talk to him when she was ready. Until then, they could simply exist together in the comfortable silence. He sat on the edge of the bed and rolled his shoulders. The weight of the armor was always a relief when it came off, and yet he felt like a part of him was missing when he wasn’t wearing it.

He could feel the energy coursing through him, refreshing himself from the battle that had just occurred. He remembered how it felt so long ago, before his father had suggested they diminish themselves to lock away the Devourer. He missed it. But this half-mortal existence wasn’t unbearable. Not with her here.

He moved from sitting to laying. The warmth of the blankets covered him like an invisible glow. He stretched out and enjoyed the feeling. He didn’t say a word as she crawled beside him, and curled up with her head on his chest. The sound of his heartbeat was something that she loved to listen to. Maybe it reassured her that he really was back. That it was really him. That he really was alive again after all those years.

He felt a slight sorrow for having caused her to endure without him. Even if she had grown stronger for it. The goddess of the hunt had become the goddess of war.

She had helped forge an empire. She had watched over it. She had protected it.
He felt the roll of a drop of salty water slide down his rib. He felt her hand on his stomach. The warmth of her embrace was greater than the warmth of a hundred blankets. He had missed her too.

“I’m so tired.” Her voice broke blanket of silence.

“Rest.” Baldir answered.
“No. I’m tired of… it. All of it. I’m just so…. Disappointed in them. They’re so caught up in playing empire they refuse to see the bigger picture.” She lifted her head a bit, to look up at him.

“Ygritte you mean?” Baldir asked.

“Not just her, no. But, in some ways. Yes.” Natasha’s face squirmed as though it were trying to decide how to form itself into words, but words were far too simple a mechanism to convey such complex emotions. “They just… they don’t see it.” She rolled so that she was next to him, her head on his arm as she looked up at the ceiling.

“She treated you like you were one of her subjects. Not one of her allies.”

“Maybe that bothered me too.” Natasha answered. “I miss Asa’s leadership. When did he stop being our leader? And you should see the way they treat Umim and Thumim. Like pets. I never understood why they tolerate it.”

“For your sake, I expect.” Baldir shrugged. “But we’re not exactly gods anymore. No temples. No worshippers. We’re fairy tales. Stories. Stories these friends of yours have likely never heard. Except perhaps the mage, when he was growing up. But from what I’ve overheard, he doesn’t seem keen on religion.”

“For my sake?” Natasha asked.
“Why do you think I’m here? Why do you think I even consider lifting my axe on behalf of this… whatever you call this invaded kingdom of theirs? I would much rather retire with you to the astral sea.” Baldir mused as he gave her a slight squeeze with his arm.

“You know we can’t just abandon this plane to its fate. There has to be a way to save it.” Natasha smirked.

“But why? What does this realm have except evil and selfishness? Let the mortals fight their wars and sort out their own destinies. You and I… we can take Avalon, rule it together like my father would have wanted.”

“Your father-“ The angry retort was cut short by a kiss. “-doesn’t get to want anything when it comes to me and my life.” She resumed once his lips had left hers.

“I know that.” Baldir nodded.

“And before he died, I’m sure he would have agreed that he was mistaken all those years ago. He didn’t know about you and I when he arranged for-“

“Don’t defend him.” Natasha’s hand slapped his chest. “Are you trying to make me angrier than I already am?”

“Of course not.” Baldir relented, and his shoulders sagged. “I was just trying to… help you let go of some of your anger. You’re a goddess of war, not a goddess of wrath.”

Natasha chuckled. “Maybe I’m both. I seem to be receiving a lot of recently.”

Baldir tilted his head in inquiry.

“The others. They were angry that I acted without orders, and shot Camborath without being told to. Sometimes I think Caroline forgets that I have ears.”

“I’m sure they didn’t-.”

“They did.” Natasha interrupted. “But how else did they think it was going to go? Did they think they were going to have time to talk it out with him? To leverage some kind of advantage? Yrgritte has the black orb of dragon kind. She’s used it. She’s earned the enmity of all dragon-kind with a stain that reeks to them like wet cabbage. And she thought she’d parley with him? She thought she’d sweet-talk him until she could gain some kind of upper hand? She even tried to convince his guards to betray him. If she wanted to follow some kind of battle plan she should have let us all in on it before bringing him into the room.”

“She had the real king Blackagar.”

“If someone said to you, the real Natasha is behind you, fight this one with me. How likely would you be to attack me? Even if you saw an exact duplicate of me standing behind you?”

“Unlikely. I’d want to sort it out. But if battle was joined…”

“Exactly. And if you were in Camborath’s place, would you bring four slaves with you into a private audience with the enemy who has never been seen alone and whose companions are known to be dragon-slayers? Would you not walk in expecting a trap, and attempt to spring one of your own? But they don’t credit their enemies with any more intelligence than they credit me. They fell to arrogance and thought they had the upper hand. Camborath isn’t the type to wait and give his enemies time to garner any advantage.”

“How did you come to know his name?” Baldir realized the question as he asked it.

“You don’t remember him?” Natasha asked.

“Should I?”

“Maybe two hundred years before Himmel. Ebonwood.” Natasha answered. “You remember my friend, Oloriel?”

“The one who had that high-pitched laugh?” Baldir asked.

Natasha smirked. “Yes.”

She gave him a playful shove. “In those days the elves kept to the wood, but the dragons would come on raids and enslave as many as they could. Oloriel fought against them with me.”

“I don’t remember her being much of fighter.” Baldir paused for a moment.

“She wasn’t. She was a herbalist. I taught her how to wield a bow. She was… taken. A young black dragon at the time led his forces into the wood. She was out gathering herbs.” Natasha’s voice grew distant. The memories were coming back strongly, each word cut her like a fresh knife against the skin. Her eyes watered again. “I tracked them. I hunted them. I found them. But I… I was too late. He’d eaten half of her by the time I arrived. I tried to kill him then, but… he wasn’t alone. And he escaped.”

“You recognized him?” Baldir was puzzled.

“Robin did. Well. Kind of. You know Robin. He told me my first chance at war tonight would be vengeance for the herb-girl. I put it together from that. And then, when he transformed… there he was. And again, he got away. And all they can think of is how pissed they are they didn’t get to delay the fighting with more words.”

“You should tell them.” He suggested.

“No.” Natasha wiped her faced with a cloth. “I shouldn’t have to. They should trust me. I might not cry to them. I might not tell them of my life and its many losses. But I have never given them cause to doubt that everything I do, I do for them. I do for the good of this world.”

Baldir took a deep breath. There was helping, and then there was meddling, and he knew where to draw the line. “Maybe you and I should go to the front lines. Let the empress worry about her empire, and your companions can take care of their artifacts and stones for a while. You and I can take the fight to Thanatotic. We’ll put an end to this once and for all.”

“I don’t know if we’ll be enough.” Natasha hesitated.

“The others then. Robin. Umim. Thumim. Titania. I’ll take my father’s crown, my brother’s hammer, and we’ll lay waste to Thanatotic. Once we kill the Titan, we’ll retire. They can have their empire. We’ll go explore some part of the universe we haven’t seen yet.”

Natasha hesitated for a moment, as the thoughts played across her mind’s eye like a stage-work. “Alright.” She said definitely. “I’ll talk to them in the morning. After breakfast.”

“After breakfast.” Baldir agreed.

Dragons in the Throne Room

Ygritte stood in front of the throne and looked down the steps to the group that had just entered. The imposter Blackager. And a party of four guards. Inwardly, she cursed. She’d wanted him alone to minimize hurting anyone else.
Vondarra, Pierro and Asa entered the back of the room with the real Blackager. No one noticed their entry.
Ygritte took a step forward, thought about what words would be best. She needed to get in close to be the most effective. And they still needed their casters to bestow the usual magical enhancements before battle.
Two arrows flew across the room, burying deep into the imposter’s chest. For a moment, all was silent.
Ygritte turned her head to look back at Natasha. “Really? Are you fucking kidding me?”
The other woman shrugged. Apparently not caring that the people she traveled with were not gods. That they were about to face a black dragon that would have already been hard enough to fight with all of their training. They could have used a moment of surprise to get closer, deal unsuspected damage. Now they were scrambling.
Ygritte was second guessing everything she had ever thought about the woman. They were not friends or a team. They were a means to help her create more death and destruction. Even Ygritte, with all of the blood on her hands, balked at that.
But there wasn’t time to think about that now. They’d have to have it out later. If they couldn’t act as a team, for the benefit of the team, then they weren’t one. And maybe that thread needed to be cut.
She looked back down at the imposter, still staring at the arrows sticking from his chest. Surprised. Not pained. That wasn’t good.
His guards looked just as shocked. Would they protect this thing if they knew their real king was here?
Ygritte raised her voice. “The man you protect is not your king. He is a Black Dragon masquerading as Blackager. Your real king is behind you. Fight with us.”
Ygritte took a breath and charged forward, using her years of training for an extra burst of speed, bringing her in to the center of the guards and in front of the imposter. She swung her kama, letting the chain extend. But the weapon did nothing, it didn’t even seem to hit him.
Then the guard behind her seemed to change shape, it’s limbs bending in odd fashion, distorting. A wave of scales broke over its skin as it grew larger.
And larger. And larger.
A red dragon, the former guard, loomed behind her. Before she could turn, its mouth came down towards her, saliva dripping from its many teeth. She twisted, but his jaws caught the edge of her armor with bruising impact. The air left her lungs. And then it wrapped it’s long fingers around her, squeezing tight and lifting it off the ground. A wave of fear threatened to wash over her. But she was more angry that anything else and spit in its face.
It almost seemed to laugh, and started walking towards the balcony.
A wall of stone appeared, blocking the dragon from moving any farther. Ygritte looked back. Quarion’s quick thinking saving the day again. But it was Caroline who was still moving her hands, releasing the spell.
That was new. And she looked just as surprised as Ygritte.
Petrus made a running leap, landing on the back of the dragon carrying her. Ygritte reached for his outstretched hand but the dragon knocked him loose, then shook Ygritte around like a toy.
Behind her, the other guards were shifting, the imposter changing. All of them growing. A second red dragon, the black dragon, and two armored constructs, their metal shining under the chandelier.
Irec shook off his more civilized human form, and became the raging monster once more, charging the black dragon. Galon and Baldir joined him.
The red dragon moved up the steps towards Quarion. She didn’t quite see what happened next as her own dragon started to toss her around more. Just a sudden burst of flames near the throne. She didn’t know who was caught in it.
She swung her kama down on the dragon’s thumb, trying to force it to let go of her. Again and again. She thought she hit bone. But the dragon held tight, squeezed her harder. She couldn’t breathe, started to panic.
And then she saw Asa, moving closer to her, closer to the dragon. The thing he was most afraid of. To help her. The warmth of divine magic flowed through her, and she felt a little less afraid.
She tried to smile at him, but then the dragon was turning around and making its towards the other set of balcony doors. It beat its great leathery wings and burst through the door. They were airborne and getting farther away from the throne room.
Petrus followed right after, leaping from the balcony and soaring towards them.
And passed them.
She took a deep breath. She had something for this, for just these sorts of situations, though she’d never had to use it to run away before. She closed her eyes. Thought of the red cloak she was wearing. And then thought of the throne room. Of the dragons there she still needed to kill.
And then she was standing in the middle of it, a cloud of grey smoke swirling around her. Back in the throne room, next to Galon.
He nodded to her. “Glad to have you back, ‘priss.”
Ygritte blinked. “What did you just call me?”
“Priss. Like empress.”
She shook her head and turned back towards the fight.
The black dragon was gone, no sign of a body. The red still on the steps towards the throne looked rough, and panicked. Like for the first time it was afraid it might lose. The constructs still seemed relentless. But everyone still seemed in one piece. Miraculously, they were winning.
She hefted her kamas, ready to charge towards the construct, when Pierro grabbed her around the waist and pulled out the door and into the hallway.
“Stop!” She said.
“Galon said to help you and I’m getting you out.”
“He meant free from the dragon. I’m free from it. We still have things to kill. Your sister is still in there.”
“But Galon said…”
“I know what Galon said. It’s fine. Put we down, we need to go back.”
Pierro nodded and let go. Ygritte burst back through the doors in to the throne room. The other last dragon was dead. One of the constructs had fallen. Petrus had made it back in to the room and he and the real Blackager were facing off against the last.
Ygritte reached into her back, wrapped her hand around the black orb. Felt the cool touch of its magic spread up her fingers. Then opened her mouth and spit a stream of acid at the construct, hitting it center mass. The acid boiled and smoked, eating through its chest, buckling the metal. The construct stumbled and fell to the floor, lifeless.
Ygritte took a deep breath and looked around. Everyone seemed mostly ok. Vondarra and Petrus went over to Asa, who was still huddled in the corner. He seemed physically ok. And she was sure that Vondarra could handle anything else better than just about all of the rest of them.
She turned towards King Blackager and inclined her head. She remembered from her time in Attilan that he had spoken. Maybe couldn’t or would speak. He nodded in return.
“Are you hurt?” She asked. “Do you need anything?”
He shook his head.
“I’ll send for your wife.” She ducked out into the hall and asked Pierro to get the queen.
Asa seemed to have collected himself when she ducked back in. He got his feet. Shook off his robes. “Does anyone need healing?” he asked.
Ygritte shrugged. She had some bruises, nothing to bad. Considering that they’d just fought dragons, she was lucky. Lucky they were trying to take her instead of kill her.
But they all gathered round, healing what scraps they could, the blessing of Asa’s god flowing through them. She met Buccarin’s eyes from across the huddle and nodded. They were both ok. Everyone was ok.
Petrus came up to her, looking awkward now that the fight was over. “Um, since you were the only one who saw, can we maybe not tell people that I missed the landing?”
Ygritte smiled. “All I saw was you charge a dragon by yourself to save me. Twice. Thank you.”
He grinned, like kid just given high praise from a mentor. And she supposed that’s what this was for him.
Then Pierro returned with Medusalith. She was tall, with long red hair and sharp, haughty features. Beautiful. Distant. She arched an eyebrow upon seeing the carnage.
Ygritte quickly stepped forward, pulling the Vondarra with her.
Vondarra looked at Medusalith, then back at Ygritte. “Are you sure you aren’t part attilan? You look an awful lot a like.”
“Not that I know of.” Then she turned to the queen and inclined her head.
“You summoned me?” Medusalith asked.
Ygritte nodded. “This is a little hard to explain. But you know my predecessor was killed by a dragon in disguise?”
Medusalith nodded nodded and crossed her arms.
Ygritte nudged Vondarra forward.
Vondarra took a breath. “We had reason to believe that your king had been replaced by an imposter. Similar to what had happened to our hero. We sent a team to rescue him, and we confronted the fake her. And, well, I’ll let him explain the rest.” Vondarra stepped aside, and Medusalith saw Blackager. Their eyes met, and her face softened. She moved forward, and her hair came to life, surrounding them like a curtain, hiding them from view.
Ygritte looked to Vondarra. “Should we leave the room?”
Vondarra shrugged.
But the curtain of hair parted and Medusalith stepped forward, still holding Blackager’s hand. “Thank you for what you have done. Attilan will stand with you in the war to come.”
Ygritte nodded. “Thank you.”
Medusalith looked around the throne room, at the damage that had been done. “Your absence has not gone unnoticed from the celebration.”
“Shit.” Ygritte looked down at her armor. It was bloody and scorched. “Quarion, little help? Prestidigitation?”
“I’m on it!” He rushed forward and waved his hands over her clothes and face. The blood and smoke and dirt disappeared.
But there was still the dress. Laying in tatters by the throne and smoking slightly. “Caroline? Vondarra?”
Vondarra grabbed the dress, and magicked it back together. Medusalith created another curtain of her hair, and Vondarra and Caroline helped Ygritte back in to the dress. All the while Ygritte’s mind kept skipping. They couldn’t let anyone in the throne room, not with a dragon corpse practically on top of the throne. They couldn’t cause a panic. A panic could tear the empire apart. And she still wasn’t sure those constructs were dead for good.
“Galon, can you take those apart more?” she gestured towards the room. So many things to dispose of.
He nodded. “Caroline, you’ve got her back?”
Ygritte pulled the dress a little off center and mussed up her hair. She looped her arm through Buccarin’s, and used her other hand to dishevel his hair as well.
He laughed. They had used this trick in the past, when they had been caught places they shouldn’t have been. People were less likely to ask questions when it seemed like an awkward situation. “Just like old times,” he said.
They walked back towards the ball, where the party was still continuing, though seemed to be reaching the turning point.
Before they entered, she stopped Pierro, he was walking with Krystalia back to the party. “You did good tonight.”
He nodded. “Thank you.”
Ygritte’s ladies in waiting swooped in as soon as they saw her, pushing Buccarin away and fixing her dress and hair. They were fiercer than the dragons.
And Mikhil was right behind them. He tsked at her appearance, but said nothing. “I think it is time to begin the farewell procession, if you agree?”
Ygritte nodded, then froze. “That doesn’t have to happen in the throne room, does it?”
He looked her over, noted Elsabeth still fixing her hair, and then glanced over Bucarrin, who had moved to the wall to be out of the way. “I see.”
“It’s just a bit of a mess. It’s fun. Galon is working on it.”
His eyes widened a little bit farther. “Well, I suppose I could have someone deal with it in the morning…”
“Galon is working on it right now. No need to worry.”
“Very well then. We’ll begin.” And he slipped through the crowd to wrangle the people who needed to be doing things.
Vondarra and Asa approached her. “If you don’t need us for anything, we’re going back to the mansion. Check on Visionaire and the rescuees.”
“Absolutely. Go, get some sleep. And did the dragons say they had lost a prisoner?”
Asa nodded. “They did.”
“Can you see if we can find out who?”
“I will.”
“Thank you.”
And then it was a parade of people. Mostly faces she didn’t recognize, wishing her well. Though a few she did recognize were mostly an uncomfortable recognition. People who had hired her through the guild, or family members or acquaintances of those she had killed. But there was no spark of recognition and Ygritte kept her face blank.
The procession ended. Mikhil and her ladies in waiting ushered her back towards her chambers. She managed to kiss Buccarin goodnight before she was whisked away.
They started down the hallway, when she saw Petrus standing there, looking lost. “Petrus, find Caroline. You’re staying in the palace tonight. She’ll sort things for you.”
He brightened and nodded.
Once they were inside the royal chambers, Felixa and Elsabeth helped her out of the dress. Someone had fetched her armor from the throne room. It was sitting on an ornate table, mostly clean.
“Do you need anything else tonight?” Nenyana asked.
Ygritte shook her head. “No, thank you. I’m ok. You all are dismissed.”
They bowed and left. Ygritte would never get used to that.
She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
And then, like before, she found herself sitting at a long table in a white nightgown. Her friends were seated around her, all in their night clothes. Quarion was naked. Which was a fact she probably didn’t need to know about him.
At one end of the table was Dream, dressed as they had seen him before. He smiled politely and sipped from his tea cup.
At the other end was a woman, a face that seemed so familiar and yet Ygritte couldn’t quite place. A woman with pale skin and long dark hair. But then it clicked. This was the first person Ygritte had killed. Before she was Ygritte. Before she had earned back the name of Rose. While she hadn’t been anyone but a number to the people training them. The woman had been bound to a chair, flickering light from a fire playing over her face. Ygritte and the other girls in her class had been gathered round. Madame Elinarra had held out a knife. She had wanted to see which of them was brave enough to complete the job.
Ygritte had rushed forward, grabbed the knife from Elinarra, and slashed it across the woman’s throat, opening the carotid artery. It was over in moments.
Ygritte blinked. Looked at the pretty face before her that had been long dead and tossed in some mass grave in the Niador mountains.
Death smiled at her, and Ygritte smiled back.
“Tea?” Death asked.
Several of them accepted the offer, Quarion was mumbling something about horses.
“So how goes the mission to stop Thanatotec and the devourer?” Death asked. She swirled a spoon around her tea cup.
Ygritte looked at her friends. They were a little out matched in this fight. But that wouldn’t stop them from trying. “We killed another dragon imposter. Freed a few more prisoners.” She thought of the vision she had seen through the looking glass, of herself standing before Thanatotec, surrounded by a field of bones. “Is there anything you can do to help us? Could you make our weapons better able to kill a god?”
Death thought about it for a moment. “I can’t make your weapon better. But I would suggest making him not a god.”
“That’s possible?”
Death nodded. “There are three ways you could do this. The first would be something of a puzzle. A cosmic cube. Rearranging the pizzle would allow you to rearrange reality. THough that is not without consequences. I believe the Aetherials of an expert of that sort amongst them.
“The Second is my scythe. I believe it is in Thanatotec’s vault, though he may currently be wielding it.
“The last is to sever his ties to power. The infinity stones would need to be destroy. Destroying one would get his attention, though I’m not sure how many you would need to destroy to weaken him.
“How do we destroy them?”
“Oh, by the opposing school of magic I suppose. Your wizard should be able to figure that out.”
“Is there anything else you can tell us?”
“The Devourer is coming. I won’t be able to help you with him. I want the world to keep on existing. Without life, I can’t exist. The devourer wants to end the cycle.”
Then the dream shift and Ygritte sunk back to sleep.
Ygritte woke the next morning to sun spilling through the window. As it broke over the horizon. She thought again of that vision through the spyglass. Had they made a difference enough to change the future? Or possible future. She pulled the glass from her bag and raised it to her eye, thinking about the last vision of the future she had seen.
Her vision blurred, and then she was in a firelit throne room, draped in purple tapestries. It didn’t look like anywhere in palace, or anywhere that she recognized. At the end of the hall, Thanatotec sat atop his throne. She saw herself standing before him. They seemed to be talking, but she couldn’t hear a sound. Then two people moved passed her, their clothes and body language somehow familiar. Then one turned to look at vision Ygritte, and she was able to see the mask, bone white with blood red lips, eyes outlined in black.
She knew who they were.
Then the vision faded and she was left sitting on her own bed, a sense of unease building in her stomach. She had been speaking to Thanatotec. It hadn’t seemed like she was a prisoner. The twins hadn’t been fighting her, were leaving them alone with Thanatotec.
It also explained where they went all those years ago.
She rubbed at her ribs, ran her fingers of the thin scar near the bottom of her ribcage. She didn’t know why they wouldn’t be fighting her.
She needed to tell Buccarin.
But then Pippa entered, and Ygritte shoved the spyglass away.
“Breakfast is ready,” Pippa said.
Ygritte nodded and head down to breakfast. Caroline and Petrus were already there. She didn’t realize how hungry she was until she smelled food. With all the excitement, she’d barely eaten yesterday.
Pippa slid a stack of folders towards her. “These are the matters that need your attention. The first, and I think you’ve been brief on it, so the request from a playwright to do a work based on the death of Issobelle.”
“Is the playwright any good?”
“He does have some renown.”
Petrus lit up. “This could be great! Say yes, but only if I get to play the lead.”
“And you get to review it first,” Caroline said.
Ygritte nodded. People were already talking and would continue to talk about Issobelle’s death. If this got out first, and they had some control of it, that might work in their benefit. She could at least make sure Asa wasn’t painted in too bad a light. “Tell him to work on a script, and we’ll review it. And Petrus gets a private audition for the lead.” She didn’t know if that meant Asa or Issobelle. Or even Galon or Quarion.
Pippa nodded and marked it down on her sheet. “For the next you might want the Lady Vondarra here.”
“Could we send for her?”
Pippa nodded, then stepped out in to the hall to relay the message. When she returned, she shifted to another piece of paper. “Now, there’s the matter of your statue. Have you given it any thought?”
“Um. No. Can we just do something stanard?”
“I’ll get some sketches drawn up.” She left them to eat until Vondarra’s arrival.
It was then that Quarion entered, picking shrimp from his beard. And right behind him was Galon, chewing on some jerky. The two joined them for breakfast.
“Can I have a city block?” Galon asked.
“A city block.”
“Take hell’s kitchen, it’s still rebuilding.”
“Oh!” Quarion said. “Can I have a building?”
Ygritte narrowed her eyes. “Draw me up a business plan.”
“That’s not fair. You just gave it to him.”
“Business plan first.”
Ygritte’s communication stone buzzed. “Um, Ygritte?” Asa’s voice came across.
“I’ve talked to the rescuees and the dragons. Everyone is recovering. And I found out who the missing prisoner was. It was Ricar. Sulerin’s husband.”
“I’ll have to add that to the list of things to deal with.”
“I also think we owe our dragon friends something. They’ve done so much. And Krysareth is still in the tribunal.”
“Now that we have evidence of the mind control, I’ll write a letter explaining how he was turned into a tool, a weapon.”
“Thank you. I’ll tell them.”
“And then I think the rest of you should come to the palace.”
“See you soon.”
Pippa returned with the rest of her friends. They all helped themselves to food. Pippa waited until everyone had plates. “About Ashteron Magus,” she said. “What are we going to do with the people?”
Ygritte turned to Vondarra, the back to Pippa. “What do you mean?”
“There are some suggesting that we no longer recognize Ashteron Magus as a kingdom, seeing it is no longer in the sky.”
“No. Absolutely not. A kingdom is not a place, it’s a people. We won’t just forget about them.”
“Very well. Then do you suggest we give them land? A section of the city? People with a home to fight for tend to fight better.”
“Lands, though we’ll see what is left of the empire when the war is finished.”
“If I may, some have been deserting. I think they need something now.”
“I promise they will be taken care of. They have my word. But anyone caught deserting will be executed.”
There was a hush through the room. Everyone turned to look at Vondarra.
She pressed her hands against the table. “I agree, but I think the message needs to come from their queen.”
Ygritte nodded. “I agree.”
“Then that’s it for the day,” Pippa said. She collected her things and left.
“So,” Ygritte said. “About that dream visit with death last night?”
Petrus noticeably paled. Others shifted uncomfortable last night. Galon kept eating jerky.
“Well,” Ygritte prompted. “What Are we going to do with that information? I think the cosmic cube is the only real option. I mean, none of you with stones are going to give them up, right?”
“Hell no!” Quarion said.
“I don’t think anyone could give them up willingly, even if they might otherwise want to,” Caroline added.
“And if Thanatotec has death’s scythe, we’re not going to get it away from a god,” Ygritte said.
“I could try,” Petrus said.
Galon laughed. Clapped the kid on the back. “That’s the spirit.”
“So,” Ygritte said. “We’re all in agreement that we’re taking the cosmic cube option? We’re making this decision as a team.”
One by one they all nodded. Ygritte had a monet of surreal disbelief, that she had somehow become the leader in this moment. But someone needed to steer the ship. She nodded in turn. “Ok then. We need Robin.”
“Yes?” He said. He was suddenly sitting at the table, as if had been there all along.
Oddly, she was getting used to that. “Robin, have you ever heard of a cosmic cube?”
“Oh yes,” he said. “I’ve played with it before.”
“Oh many times?”
“This morning?”
Ygritte side. Of course he was a pro at messing with reality. “How long have you had it?”
Robin looked to Natasha. “You haven’t told them?”
“But aren’t these your friends?”
“She never tells us anything,” Ygritte said, her frustration boiling over. “So if there’s anything important, any world-saving information you think we need to know, you should tell anyone else aside from Natasha. Literally any of us.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Ok. So why are you interested in the cosmic cube?”
Ygritte relayed their experiences with death.
Robin sat still for a moment. “And you’re sure you want to mess with reality?”
“We took a vote. Seems the best course of action.”
He nodded. “Ok then.” He pulled a cube out of who knows where and began to twist it.
As he did, the world changed.

Mikhil's Rest: Part 1
The Day of the Coronation, from Mikhil's Point of View

The sun had set hours before Mikhil sank slowly into his favorite chair. The fire lapped at the air and stone in the hearth in front of him. A small portrait of a young red headed woman sitting in a many-flowered garden hung on the mantle. It was not drawn in the traditional style of portraits, but each brush stroke was given at a slant with soft angles and blurred lines of color to produce an image that evoked more emotion than reality ever could. It was springtime in the painting, even as the snow fell against the palace window of frosted glass, even as he sat, wintered with age, staring at the familiar hearth of his palace chambers.

His eyes drifted up to the girl in the painting. The golden glints about her head did little to resemble the crown they represented. He had failed her. They had all failed her, in their own ways, and now there was a new Empress on the throne. One that would likely be much harder to assassinate. Dragon, or no.

He sipped his wine, and his eyes drifted back to the dancing flames in their small stone hall. He let its warmth cover him like a blanket. His mind drifted back to the earlier hours this morning.

Was it only this morning? It seemed as though so much had happened.

“She’s back sir.”

“Any explanation for where she was?” Mikhil asked as he launched himself out of bed.

“Something called the Spellwilds sir. She joined the Castigators on a mission. She was seen in the courtyard, and then escorted by the guards. She’s likely expecting you in her chambers.”

“Don’t call them that. They’re heroes. Not punishers, or avengers.” Mikhil slipped behind the changing screen.

“They’re both sir.”

“I guess we should be glad that she made it back in time. Does she realize that today is her coronation day?” His night clothes landed in a neatly folded pile on the foot of his bed.

“I don’t know sir.”

“And miss Potter, is aware of her arrival?”

“I don’t know sir. Another guard was sent to fetch her.”

“Well if she tries to leave, stop her.” Mikhil’s robes disappeared from the hanger he’d placed them on the night before.

“Not on your life sir.”

“What was that?” Mikhil’s face appeared from beside the screen.

“I said, not on your life sir. She’s the Empress, she can go where she pleases. And besides that, I want to live.”

“She won’t be the Empress if she doesn’t sit still long enough. She has to make it through the coronation tonight without running off with her friends.” Mikhil emerged from behind the screen and started at a brisk pace, grabbing his cane from where it rested by the door.

“The Castigators sir?”

“Don’t call them that.” Mikhil locked the door to his chambers. The guard trailed behind as Mikhil’s wooden cane tapped heavily on the polished stone floor with every step taking him nearer to the Empress.

By the time he arrived at her chamber doors the rest of the palace seemed to be awake and moving about as well. There were a lot of duties to be seen to today, but this Empress was his first and foremost concern. She had to be ready. Tonight.

The doors opened. And there she was to greet him. In her… blood stained armor, soiled from battle and dirt. She looked clean enough, but the leathery carcass she dressed in smelled hellish, and that chain she wore smelled like a wet dog. He smiled, in the habit of one accustomed to mustering sincerity, and bowed. The guards knelt. He would have, if he were younger.

“Lady-” He moved to speak but she raised her hand, and he silenced himself out of reflex. She was not yet coronated, but she was still to be his Empress.

“I know.” Her voice was impatient. He would have to teach her to control that a little better. “Empressy things. But first I need to go to the dungeons and see the prisoner waiting for me, and then I want a full, better report from Wrath.”

“Very well, your highness.” He nodded and moved slightly to allow her the freedom to pass as the guards rose to follow her. She was interrogating prisoners? In… full armor? They had interrogators… but apparently she liked the hands on approach, and she was dressed to intimidate.

“Is that what you’re wearing?” He ventured.

Her sigh was audible. “Yes.”

“It’s in poor taste.” He chastised the guard. An empress interrogating a prisoner should dress regally, beyond the reach of the prisoner, like a deity, staring down. And the prisoner should be brought to her, not have her enter the dungeons on her own accord.

The look she gave him made him wonder if he had overstepped.

“I’ll have the garments laid out for this evening.” He bowed his head once more in a show of humility. “If you’ll wear what I provide?”

“Fine.” Her answer seemed to bring the matter to an end, as she and the guards were on the move before she had even finished speaking it. He remained bowed until they had passed, and then he straightened. His back was getting too stiff. He stretched it as he stepped forward.

“Mikhil.” A pleasant voice came from down the hall. “Is she here?” Elsabeth Broadoak, one of the ladies in waiting.

“She’s in the palace. She’s gone to question a prisoner.” Mikhil smiled slightly. “All in a day’s work, I suppose. If it were me, I’d be nervous.” He laughed.

“Lady Ygritte doesn’t seem to be the type for fear. After all, I’m sure the Sisterhood taught her how to behave as a proper lady.” Elsabeth chuckled.

“Oh, I’m sure.” He shook his head. “Would you be so kind as to follow me, until your lady returns? I could use a Lady’s advice on some of the choices for attire this evening.”

Her nod and gentle taking of his arm was enough to signal her willingness.

He spoke as they headed down the hall. “I’ve had the dress made to her measurements, but there are some finishing touches to be considered, and the jewelry.”

“Are you sure she doesn’t want to wear her armor?” Elsabeth asked.

“I’m sure she does. But it sends the wrong message.” Mikhil answered.

“What do you mean?”

Mikhil stopped. He looked about the hallway for a bit, and then pointed his staff towards a large statue that stood on one side of the entrance to the chamber pots. “You see this statue?”

Elsabeth knew the question was rhetorical but couldn’t help herself. “Which statue?”

Mikhil didn’t seem half as amused as Elsabeth was. “This one.” He tapped its empty scabbard with his cane. The scabbard was empty because the statue held his sword aloft. His face was grim, and he was dressed in half-chain half-plate armor adorned with the furs and feathers of an owlbear. The detail on every feather was stunning, when you stopped to notice it. The finest artisans must have spent careful hours shaping the patterns into the stone.

“Oh, wow.” Elsabeth remarked. “I’ve passed this statue many times, but I don’t think I’ve ever noticed…”

“Yes, yes, it’s very impressive. But that’s not the point.” Mikhil tapped his cane on the floor. “The point is the person. This is Vardamir.” Mikhil stated the name as though that made the point for him, and no further explanation was necessary. Elsabeth’s expression explained that more explanation was not only necessary, but crucial to understanding.

He sighed. “Vardamir was emperor of these lands some six hundred years ago. Thirteen-eighty-seven he took the oaths of the throne. And this was his coronation statue. He ruled until Fourteen-hundred-and-three, when he was killed in battle by the Wolf of the Empire of the time.”

“He was what?” Elsabeth asked in surprise.

“Oh he deserved it.” Mikhil waved his hand as though he were waving away a bad smell. “Do you know what he did?” He asked Elsabeth, who clearly didn’t. “He was a man of war. He loved to fight, and battle. But he wasn’t content with killing monsters of the lands or fighting in the orc wars. No. He wanted to raise an army, and invade Drakonis to the South. He enslaved half the kingdom to do it, and came to blows with the Council of Kings. He wanted to go tearing down the wall if he had to. The same wall that protected us physically and magically for two thousand years.”

“And the wolf stopped him?” Elsabeth asked.

“The wolf stopped him.” Mikhil answered.

“That’s the kind of ruler that gets coronated in armor. War-hungry rulers do not inspire faith from the people, or good will. They inspire fear. They inspire terror. They inspire rebellion.”

“But wouldn’t a warrior-queen be a boon to us? After all Lady Ygritte is-”

“Yes.” Now it was Mikhil’s turn to raise his hand. “Yes, I know. We all know. And we are at war. The people know that. But they have heroes already to inspire them to great feats of valor and lead the armies to victory. Lord Asa is quite popular among the people, Ser Caroline is much beloved as well, as are the stories surrounding their exploits. Even Lord Quarion has been the subject of many letters requesting introduction from ladies, and a few gentlemen, of the nobility.”

“Then why-”

“Because the people have heroes already. They do not need another one. What they need now, more than anything, is an Empress. Someone they can love. Someone who can be seen to care them, who reminds them that a world without war will exist again – and when it does – it will be ruled well, and fairly, and all will be right within the world.” Mikhil explained.

“That seems a little… childish? Naive?” Elsabeth smirked. “Take your pick.”

“It’s hope.” Mikhil shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be achievable, it just has to be believable. And with it, a great many unachievable things become reality.”

Elsabeth smiled, and took his arm again as they continued down the hall to the tailors. The silence that passed between them was comfortable, until Mikhil broke it.

“How is your father, by the way?” Mikhil asked, realizing that he may have been insensitive regarding the subject of war.

“I don’t know.” Elsabeth answered honestly. “He and my brother are fighting Thanatotic’s forces in Osternien. I sent word to them last night, but I do not expect to hear back for several days.”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine. Your brother is quickly becoming quite the legend himself. Captain is he?” Mikhil asked as the details stood at the fringe-edge of his memory.

“Yes. Recently promoted, a captain of the Knights.” She answered with a nod. “I’m actually a little jealous.”

“Really? You’re one of the Empress’ Ladies, that is a high honor.” Mikhil reminded her.

“Thank you. But I’d rather be fighting.” Elsabeth nodded.

“I think you’ll have that chance, before all is said and done.”

They reached the chamber and entered carefully, not knowing where the seamstress was in her work. He needn’t have worried. She was nearly finished. A team of tailors and seamstresses flitted about the room. The coronation gown was not the only piece being worked on, but it was the most prominent. It stood central, lit by levered shutters in the ceiling so that the sunlight could flood into the room and present the dress as it was meant to be seen.

“Oh Mikhil. It’s beautiful.” Elsabeth moved toward it.

“Yes… now all that remains is to convince her ladyship to wear it.” Mikhil breathed out a chuckle.

The Coronation of Ygritte Blackfyre, first of her name
Also know as Rose Morro

Ygritte made her way to the Palace. Before she did anything else, she needed to fix Thumin. He had been turned to stone helping her. She had to set it right.
So she sought out Robin Goodfellow.
It was as easy to slip into the palace as it had been to leave it. No one noticed her. She thought about mentioning it to the guards, pointing out their weak spots. But then that would limit her own means of moving about freely. She felt like she would need it in the coming days.
A commotion down the hall drew her attention, the sound of laughter and cheering. And then, above it all, the unmistakable laugh of Robin Goodfellow. Ygritte sighed, but headed in that direction.
A few of the off duty guards had cleared a space in their lounge. In the center of it, Robin was wrestling a large red ape. At least he was losing.
Across the hall, on the other side of the gathered crowd, Natasha and Baldir entered. She met Natasha’s eyes and nodded.
The ape suddenly turned into a fish, smacking Robin across the face, before turning into a very pissed off guard.
Ygritte cleared her throat.
The guards turned, still laughing and exchanging money. And then they realized who stood behind them. Almost as one, they kneeled.
Ygritte was sure she’d never get used to that.
Robin looked around, saw Ygritte standing to one side, and Natasha and Baldir to the other. Natasha pointed to her skin, which was still a shade of lavender that almost matched the purple accents on her armor. “Fix this.”
Ygritte shooed the guards away, then pulled the stone raven from her bag of holding. “And this.”
Robin looked between them, giggled a bit. “How did this happen?”
“Spell wilds, magic gone awry.”
“I don’t like being purple,” Natasha said.
Robin laughed again. “But it’s such a good color on you! Look, you almost match.”
Natasha glared. Robin laughed more. “How about stripes?” he asked.
Baldir stepped forward. He didn’t touch a weapon, but he didn’t need to. “Robin.”
The trickster sobered. “Alright, Alright.” He booped Natasha on the nose and the purple color faded from her face. “That’s one problem down.” He turned back to Ygritte.
She lifted Thumin’s stone body again. “Can you fix him?”
Robin hummed and turned his head this way and that. He licked his finger, and swiped it down the stone raven’s head, starting between the eyes and ending down the beak. Where he touched, feathers began to emerge. The raven shook off the stone and hopped from Ygritte’s arms, before landing on the floor and changing back to his Aetherial shape.
Thumin shook again. “That was…unpleasant.”
Ygritte nodded. “Are you ok? I’m so sorry.”
He shrugged. “I seem to be alright.”
Robin chuckled again. “Well, as your new king I expect you to get back to work.”
They all froze—Natasha, Baldir, Ygritte, Thumin—as if they had been struck.
“What?” Natasha asked.
“Oh,” Robin said. He twisted his hands, looked down at the floor. “Well, being as I’m the oldest, I believe it falls to me.”
“Why would anything be falling to you?” Natasha pressed.
“What have you heard since you’ve been back?”
Robin nodded, tapped his chin. “Well, the battle happened.”
Natasha and Ygritte exchanged glances. “And?” Natasha asked.
“Well, Oberon is missing. The battle happened, chaos, fire, the usual sort of battle things associated with battle. But, hm. Things got…weird? I’m not sure how to describe it.”
Ygritte sighed. She had wanted a full battle report when she had returned, and Robin’s ramblings were useless. “I’m going to find Wrath.”
One of the soldiers who had discreetly placed himself at the and of the hall stepped forward. “He’s in the war room. We’ll escort you.”
Ygritte bit back another sigh. She wondered how much trouble the guards had gotten in when she had slipped out the window. “Thank you.”
The guards led the group of them through the palace to the war room. More guards flanked the doors, and they hastily pulled them open and bowed their heads to Ygritte as she passed.
Wrath was in the center of the room, looking at a map and various reports from the field. Black Watch agents bustled around him, moving quickly from station to station.
Wrath turned his eye to them as they approached, nodded, and went back to his reports. “Do you want the full report or the highlights of what happened while you were off galavanting, your highness?”
Ygritte kept the smile on her face. “The highlights. We can do a full debrief in the morning while we also go over the mission that we accomplished.”
“That you weren’t supposed to be on.”
“What did we lose?”
Wrath sighed a rubbed his face. “A lot.”
“What happened to Oberon?” Natasha asked.
“Missing, presumed dead. The Aetherials took the hardest hit. Thunor, Sien, Vhindler, all gone. Magnus is missing.” He turned to Ygritte. “We found someone you wanted to see.”
Ygritte blinked. “What?”
“Daiseren. She’s in the dungeons. But she brought you something I think you’ll like. It’s in the throne room. Daiseren wanted to talk to you, and only you.”
Ygritte nodded and turned towards the door. “I want a full report in the morning.”
Wrath frown and snorted a little. “I’ll be there with bells on.”
They left the war room, and guards led them back to the throne room. Galon and Quarion caught up to them there. Quarion was no longer turning into a tree, and Galon’s head had returned to its normal size. She wondered if anyone had yet told him that she had died.
The guards shifted uncomfortably around the wizard. But they pulled open the doors and the group stepped inside. The smell of rotted meat greeted them.
In the the center of the room was a large cart, a bloodied tarp covering the contents inside. Galon pulled it away to reveal the head of a gold dragon that looked just like Kraseryth. But they had just seen him back at the mansion.
Baldir stepped forward and tapped the dragon with the butt of his axe. “That’s a dead dragon.”
Galon moved forward and began searching the head. First, he pulled away a stone, and Ygritte realized it was the communication stone that had belonged to Asa. And then Galon grabbed onto something that none them could see.
“Q,” he said. “Before I pull this thing out, what is it?”
Quarion stepped forward, waved his hands. And then recoiled, turning away. He knocked over a vase that had been against the wall, then straightened and leaned on it for support. “Don’t know.” He blinked his eyes rapidly.
Galon shrugged and pulled the thing away. The head instantly changed, the color fading from gold to red. And in Galon’s hand he now held the missing gem.
His eyes glazed over. Ygritte’s hand tightened on her weapons.
But then Galon blinked and looked down at the stone.
“Are you you?” Ygritte asked.
He nodded. “Think so.”
Ygritte looked at the head. Daiseren had sought out the beast that had killed Isobelle. And killed it.
Ygritte would talk to her in the morning.
She turned to her friends. “I don’t know about you guys. But it’s been a long day. I need to sleep”
She left them all still standing in the throne room, staring at the dragon head.
Guards were waiting for her outside the doors. They escorted her back to her rooms. Ygritte shut the doors behind her, grateful to finally be alone. The attention and scrutiny was getting to her, and she’d only been back in the palace for a few hours. What would her life become now?
She peeled off her armor, washed off the blood stains, and crawled in to bed. She tried not to think about what she had seen, what had happened to her. She thought again of what she had seen through the spyglass, of standing in front of Thanatotic in a field of bones. And then of what had happened in the white stone castle. Her memories were all jumbled up.
Forcing everything from her mind, Ygritte drifted to sleep.
And dreamed.
She dreamed of cold laughter, swirling faces. An echoing voice calling her name. Two women all in black, so similar they were nearly identical. Except for their weapons. One held a pair of swords. The other had her own chained kama, like the one Ygritte had carried before she had taken the chain from the demon hound. Their faces were covered in identical white masks, lips painted in red the color of blood, the holes for the eyes ringed in black. She could see anything behind the eye holes. They felt familiar. Like a thought she knew she had but couldn’t quite bring to the surface. But they called out to her. And she thought she heard, very faintly, the sound of crying. But then she was bathed in a pool of blood, the women fading away in a cloud of black smoke.
And suddenly, she was sitting at a long wooden table, blood free and dressed in her armor. Most of her friends were gathered there. Galon, Vondarra, Quarion, Natasha, Baldir, Caroline. Even young Petrus was there. Sand was scattered around the room, but it was otherwise perfect.
At the head of the table sat a thin man dress all in black. His clothes wore finely tailored, his demeanor perfect and polished. Aside from his hair. A shock of black hair stuck out in every direction. It somehow humanized his otherworldly countenance. He sipped from a teacup, then placed it gently on the table. “Hello,” he said.
They all looked at each other. Finally, Pretrus cleared his throat. “Hi.”
“Would tea make you all feel more comfortable?”
Tea appeared on the table before them.
“Who are you?” Quarion asked.
The man smiled. “I believe you met my older brother, Death. I came shortly after him. You’re in my realm at the moment. Welcome to dream.”
They again exchanged looks. “I mean no disrespect,” Vondarra said. “But why are we here?”
The man took another sip of his tea. “Because I have a vested interest in what happens to the universe. Like my brother, I wish to offer aid and incentive where I can. My powers are…unique.”
Quarion made a noise. “It’s just magic.”
“And where do you think that magic comes from?”
Quarion beamed. “I draw it from the universe itself.”
The man nodded. “Yes, you do. Very good. And if the universe no longer exists?”
“No more magic?” Quarion frowned.
The man smiled, and a plate of cookies appeared in front of Quarion. “Similarly, I need the universe and it’s people to….keep being.” He placed his cup back on the table. “I cannot offer you anything as grand as my brother has. But I can offer you this: I can make it harder for things to enter your minds. A modicum of protection.”
“What about those we want in willingly?” Galon asked.
The man frowned. “Yes, I suppose, but why would you want to do that?”
“I lost my memories,” Galon said. He turned to Vondarra. “We’ve been working to get them back one piece at a time.”
“Would you like them all back now?”
Galon nodded.
“Very well,” and the man in black waved his hand. Immediately, Galon started to cry. Vondarra patted him on the shoulder and looked to the rest of them for help. They had never seen Galon or any of his other lives like this before.
The man in black steepled his fingers. “So, what will your answers be?”
One by one they went around the table, giving their answers. Ygritte thought about what it would mean. She had had her own head messed with, more times than she was probably fully aware of. Any amount of protection from that was something to be held on to tightly.
But she knew someone who that would mean even more to.
“May I accept for someone else?” she asked.
The man in black blinked. “I suppose, but who?”
The man in black frowned. “He does have troubled, turbulent dreams. And it would evict the people already in his mind. I’m not sure what that would do.”
Ygritte’s eyes widened. “What? Who’s in there?”
“Oh, hundreds of people.” The man in black waved her off. “I supposed I could visit him at another time. What about the answer for yourself?”
“Very well, then we’re settled. It won’t be impossible, but you will all be much harder to influence mentally.” He stood and waved his hands. “Now off with you.”
Ygritte awoke in her bed. For a moment the room felt like it was spinning. She sat up and grabbed the kama next to her bed. The weapon helped her feel less exposed.
Had that really happened? What had she agreed to on Buccarin’s behalf?
And then there was her dream. The two women had felt so familiar, but she didn’t remember them.
Ygritte pulled the Seer’s spyglass from her bag. Held it in her hands. The last time she had looked through the glass, she had seen the future. Or a possible future. She didn’t know.
This time she thought of the past. Of when Rose became Ygritte.
She saw herself in a dirty, burnt out room, snow drifting in the broken windows. A fire burned a small little tin. It did nothing against the cold. Her face was barely visible under the shadows of her large dark cloak. Her skin was pale and drawn.
She held her hands to the flames and tears dripped down her face, cutting clean tracks through the dirt and the grime. It was the last time she remembered crying because of anything other than pain. She’d lost so much.
She’d spent days looking, weeks. And nothing. If she kept looking, she could never go back. Then she would be hunted, too. She was out of money, out of food, out of options.
Being hunted would be the end of it. She would have no resources, nothing to draw on. She wouldn’t be able to do anymore good.
But she didn’t know if she could survive going back. Rose wouldn’t survive.
So she decided she would be someone else. Prove to the guild that she was someone else. Rose would be dead and buried, along with everything that had happened. She had been weak, and lost everything.
She wouldn’t be that person anymore.
Ygritte pulled the spyglass away from her eye. Took a deep breath. Slid the glass back into her bag.
But she didn’t have time to dwell. She could hear a cane tapping on the stone outside of her room. And then she remembered what today was. Her coronation.
There was so much to do.
But first, she had promised to see Daiseren.
She dressed quickly, pulling her armor over fresh clothes. Then strapped on her weapons.
Mikhil was waiting for her outside her door, along with two guards. She knew they were there for her safety. But she couldn’t help but think of them more like jailers. Or meatshields.
Before Mikhil could speak, she raised her hand. “I know. Empressy things. But first I need to go to the dungeons and see the prisoner waiting for me, and then I want a full, better report from Wrath.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “Very well, your highness.” He looked her up and down. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
She sighed. “Yes.”
“You have no taste. I’ll have the garments laid out for this evening. You will wear what I provide.”
Ygritte spent the walk down to the dungeons picking at her cloths, trying to smooth out the wrinkles, rub a little shine into the metal bits.
Inside of being brought in to the dungeons proper, Ygritte was lead to a chamber outside. The room was sparse, but clean and bright. The guards assured her that Daiseren would be brought in right away. They were sparing Ygritte the filth of the dungeons. She almost laughed. If they only knew what she had done and what she had been through.
True to their words, Ygritte was only waiting for a moment before Daiseren was brought in. The guards moved to the door, readying for action but trying to remain distant.
Daiseren dropped to her knees. “Your highness.”
“Please, sit.”
Daiseren took the seat across from Ygritte. She looked worn, dirty, but unharmed. “Thank you, your highness.”
“You wanted to speak with me?”
“Yes. Did you see what I brought you?”
“Yes. Did you kill the dragon yourself?”
She shook her head. “I had help.”
“They asked to remain anonymous.”
Ygritte frowned, but nodded. She understood the need for anonymity, especially when it involved the secrets of others. But she didn’t have to like it. “Where did you find it?”
“Have you heard of a place called Knowhere?”
Ygritte nodded, remembering the guardians who had helped kill Garinch, and warned she, Asa, and Quarion from heading to Thannatotek’s fortress. She had a pretty good idea of who could have helped Daiseren kill the dragon.
Daiseren leaned back in the chair. “I fulfilled my duty as best I could. So I ask you. Empress. What will you do with me? You’re the only one who can pardon me.”
Ygritte regarded her, keeping her face neutral. Daiseren had failed in her duty. But Ygritte didn’t know what the girl could have done differently aside from die as well. “I will not reinstate you to the palace guard. The position has been filled. But I will pardon you of your crimes. I believe you had done everything within your power. You could not have known that a dragon was masquerading as Asa, a trusted figure. It was undetectable by magic. No one knew. I release you to Wrath’s services.”
Daiseren nodded. “Thank you, your highness.”
Ygritte looked to the guard. “Make sure she’s taken care of.”
The guard nodded. “Wrath is waiting for you. We can take you to him.”
Ygritte was once again lead through the palace by guard. This was already grating on her every nerve. Wrath was waiting for her in a side room. Breakfast was already spread out before them.
“Your highness.”
Ygritte sat in the chair across from him. “You don’t have to call me that.”
“Actually. I do.”
“Please don’t.
He shook his head. Muttered something about being too old for this. “So,” he said. “Should I give the full report, or do you want your….friends? Companions?”
“Friends is probably the right term.”
“Do you want them here for this?”
Ygritte nodded. “They should be at the mansion. I can ask for them—”
“You can summon them. You have people to do that.”
“Oh. Right. Then yes, if we could send someone to summon them.”
Wrath nodded to a guard at the door, and the woman quickly left the room. Then he pulled over a tray of food. “Might as well enjoy breakfast while you can.”
Ygritte nodded and took her own plate.
Soon they were joined by the others from the mansion. Quarion immediately helped himself to bacon.
Wrath looked around at all of them. “A lot has happened since you left,” he said. “Reports are still coming in, but best as we can figure out, this is what happened. Rossinar and Oberon attempted to parlay with the enemy forces. Onai met them. Oberon demanded to parlay with Thannatotek himself. And the bastard actually showed. We’re not sure what exactly was said, but the negotiations fell apart. The battle began shortly after Rossinar and Oberon returned to the wall.
“Reports are hazy about what happened next. Vhindler fell first. Then lady Sien and her wolf. Oberon was locked in battle with Onai. Thunor joined them, but was over run with dragons from behind. Oberon grabbed the hammer as Thunor fell, and threw it. We haven’t been able to recover it from the field. Oberon was able to slay dragonlord Onai.
“We were actually winning the day, though at heavy losses, when the titan took the field. The dead, ours and theirs, rose. They joined his side. Oberon faced him, but there was an explosion and a flash of blinding light. Oberon hasn’t been seen since.
“That’s when Magnus took the field. The fighting moved closer to the wall. In what we believe was a last ditch effort, Ashteron Magus fell from the sky. We believe it was aimed at the base of the wall. And the wall fell.”
Wrath turned to Vondarra. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. “But long live the Queen.”
Vondarra paled. “Have you recovered his body?”
“We have not.” He looked around at all of them. “Thanatotic was knocked from the sky. And when that happened, the infighting happened. The metallic dragons turned on the chromatic. It allowed us time to pull back from the field.”
“We had friends on the field,” Caroline asked. “Do you know if Rhodes and Gafferson survived?”
“They were both here in the city, during the battle. I heard both were displeased by that. We believe Ashteron Magus suffered losses at 60%. Talabod’s forces Losses of 50%. Rossinar was badly injured. So. Tell me. Was the distraction worth it?”
Asa nodded. “We recovered some of the orbs of dragonkind. The gold has been destroyed. We were unable to recover the red, green, black, and silver orbs.”
“Well, that’s something at least. Have you used them? What do they do?”
Ygritte felt the black orb in her bag like a weight.
Quarion cleared his throat. “We haven’t used them yet. But I can tell you everything about them. The orbs can be used to control their corresponding colored dragons. Each also has a special ability. They can make the bearer tougher, harder to hit, and fortify their mind some. But anyone who uses one becomes the enemy of dragonkind forever.”
“And they can only be destroyed by a dragon of that color,” Robin said.
He was suddenly sitting at the end of the table, as if he had been there for a long time. He began helping himself to some food.
“So what do we do now?” Galon asked
“Well, seeing as the lot of you seem to have the rest of the stones, I think Thanatotic will come here to get them.”
Ygritte shook her head. “We can’t let him near the city. There are too many civilians.”
Wrath nodded. “But his forces have the advantage in the open field.”
“So what do you propose?”
“We lure him to Winterbridge. The city is only partially rebuilt, and we can take to the surrounding mountains. It will be difficult for them to use flying to their advantage there.”
“You’ll need bait.”
“I thought we would make it seem like you were heading there.”
Ygritte nodded. “Seems like a good plan.”
Galon nodded. “I’ve got that covered.” He reached into his bag, pulled something out, and fiddled with a few things. Soon enough, he had a replica of Ygritte standing next to him at the table, a lifeless expression on her face.
The real Ygritte recoiled. “That thing is deeply unsettling.”
“But we can use it to seem like you.”
She nodded, and turned her head away, trying not to look at it.
Wrath turned to look at her. “There’s no way I can convince you to not be part of this fight, is there?”
Ygritte shook her head. “No.”
“Ygritte,” Asa said. “Could we talk?”
She nodded and looked back to Wrath.
Wrath frowned. “I guess I’m dismissed. Get ready for your coronation.”
Wrath left the room. Ygritte and Asa stood and moved to an Antechamber. Caroline followed behind them.
Ygritte had a brief flash of worry. She hadn’t been able to talk to Caroline since they had returned. Caroline hadn’t handle her near death experience well. She wondered how the other woman was doing now.
But they had so much to go over, so much to do. It would have to wait.
Asa shut the door behind them. “The orbs,” he said. “I wanted to talk to you before we did anything with the rest of them.”
Ygritte raised an eyebrow. “The rest of them?”
He nodded. “The gold has already been destroyed.”
She sighed and rubbed her temples. “Ok.”
“You heard what Quarion said. That anyone who uses them becomes the enemy of dragonkind forever. I don’t know if we should use them. And I think we should allow the metallic ones to be destroyed.”
Ygritte sighed, reached into her bag of holding, and pulled out the black orb. “I’m already using one.”
Asa took a step back. “The acid?”
She nodded.
“How long?”
“Since right before Isobelle died. It’s how I knew where the other orbs were. I can see through them with this, and communicate to whoever has the other orbs.”
“Well, maybe if you don’t try to control one, the other dragons will forgive you.”
“I don’t think it works that way.”
He nodded. “What do you want to do?”
Ygritte tapped her fingers along the orb’s surface. It was cold to the touch. “I’m ok with destroying the metallic orbs. There’s evidence that they turned on Thanatotic once free of his control. But we can’t say the same of the chromatic dragons.”
“Ok.” He turned to Caroline. “Which ones do you have?”
Caroline reached into her own bag and pulled out the brass and the blue orbs. “And Petrus has the bronze.”
“So we’re missing silver, red, and green.”
“I know where the silver and red are,” Ygritte said. “The silver one was under water, at the bottom of what looked like an ocean. The red is in Onai’s vaults. We didn’t search them when we rescued you.”
“You were too busy getting me out of there.”
“Hey,” Ygritte said, her voice sharp. “That is not your fault. And don’t you dare act like it. We made the choice.”
“But I screwed things up again. Just like I got you and Caroline killed.”
“Whatever, I’m fine now. And if that was anyone’s fault, it’s mine. I told you to touch the scales. You were listening to me. So drop it.”
Reluctantly, Asa nodded. “We’ll need to go back to to the vaults.”
“There’s something else,” Ygritte said. “The Silent King is a dragon. That’s who Kraseryth told us about when we rescued him. I think the real King is being held there.”
And then the horns sounded, marking the arrival of an official procession.
“Shit,” Ygritte said.
They made their way to the throne room. The cart with the dragon head had been removed. Ygritte took her place on the throne. Galon stood at his place to her right. She looked at the empty spot to her left and shook her head.
The doors opened, and the procession from Attilan entered. Immediately Ygritte could sense the presence of a black dragon, old and powerful. She looked over the procession. The silent king showed no outward sign of knowing she had the orb.
Pierro pulled Vondarra to the side, and the two conversed briefly in the corner.
Mikhil caught her eye from the back of the room and nodded. Ygritte took a deep breath and began the royal greeting, reciting the script as best she could. Inwardly she flinched whenever she stumbled. But Mikhil continued to smile and nod from the back of the room. Considering she had learned this three days ago, and had spent one of those days in the spell wilds, this wasn’t bad.
When she finished, Medusalith stepped forward. “Thank you for your hospitality. I am sorry at the unfortunate circumstances that lead here, but we all do what we must.”
Ygritte nodded. “And thank you for coming. Is there anything you need before the ceremony tonight?”
“Pierro was telling us how lovely the Palace and the gardens are. Perhaps a guide to show us around?”
Ygritte nodded. “I have just the person. Tyfaerd?”
The Keeper of arms stepped forward. “Yes, your highness?”
“Would you be so kind to show our guests around the palace and the surrounding grounds? Maybe give them some of the history?”
He practically glowed. “Why, I love giving history lessons.” And he turned back to Medusalith. “If you will follow me?” And he lead the procession from the room. They could hear his nasally voice carrying through the passages as he described the frescos in the entranceway.
Ygritte sighed in relief and sagged a little on the throne. The rest of court trickled out. Mikhil swung by the throne to offer praise and corrections. “You’ll do even better the next time. I’m a miracle worker.” He looked her over. “You should put on something nicer for the next one.” And he left the room.
Her friends joined her around the throne, as well as Pierro.
“We’re going to look for dad,” he said. “Who’s coming with me?”
“Wait,” Vondarra said. “We can’t go right now. There are things we need to do. But we will go,” she assured.
“We also need to go back to Onai’s vaults. The red orb is there, as well as a valuable prisoner.” And she told them all what she knew about Blackaggar.
Pierro looked back the way the Attilan’s had left. “My Fiance is with them.”
“One of the many reasons that problem should be at the top of our list.” She looked around at them. “I think we should leave immediately. We need to be back before the coronation.”
Galon made the simulacron appear again. “Worse comes to worse, this can stand in for you.”
“I hate that thing.”
“Wait,” Asa said. “You don’t need to go. We don’t need to go. We can ask our dragon friends at the mansion. I believe they will do it if we give them the other metallic orbs.”
Ygritte nodded. “Will you go talk to them?”
“Yes. And I think Vondarra could help.”
The two of them left, Caroline and Petrus following, bringing their own orbs with them.
No sooner than they had gone, the horns sounded again.
Ygritte sighed. “Today is going to suck.”
Galon ducked outside. “Looks like the giants,” he said, when he returned.
Ygritte brightened. “At least I like them.”
Her friends returned just as the giants were arriving. “They’re on their way,” Vondarra said.
Ygritte nodded. It was the best she could ask for.
She repeated the pomp and circumstance of the royal reception, thought the giants made it a much less formal affair. Mikhil continued to pat himself on the back.
They ended the reception with lunch, the Attilans returning from their tour of the gardens, Tyfeard still droning on about the history of the palace and the the pedigree of the gardeners. Galon stayed to her right side, constantly scanning for threats. Which meant Ygritte was supposed to concentrate on the people in front of her.
Caroline plopped into the chair next to Ygritte’s. “What should I wear tonight?”
Ygritte startled. “What?”
“What should I wear to your coronation? Atwood criticized my clothes. And the Mikhil guy who has been bossing you around. And even Asa. Do I wear a uniform or a dress?”
“I don’t care. Wear what you’re most comfortable in.”
“Pants, got it.”
The horns sounded again. Ygritte braced for impact.
A few moments later, a new entourage entered the dining room. Ygritte recognized Romarrus, and Sulerin on his arm. They approached her end of the table. Caroline stood from her seat.
Ygritte inclined her head to Romarrus. “Your highness.”
He nodded in turn. Smirked a little. “Your highness.”
“Thank you for coming.”
He turned to Sulerin. “Your emissary was quite convincing. I see you have let the enemy through the walls.”
“We did not do so willingly. And It was at great cost.”
“Sulerin says you seek aid.”
“I do.”
“I believe we are all in danger from the titan. It would be wise to pool our resources and fight together.”
“What do you ask of me?”
“Anything you are willing to give us.”
He thought for a moment. Tapped his chin. “Troops? Mages?”
“Our mage forces were hit the hardest. If you could send mages, it would be greatly appreciated.”
He nodded. “I would not see them used as cannon fodder.”
“Of course. I do not wish to send anyone to needless deaths.”
“I would lead them.”
“As is only fair.”
He nodded again. “Then we are in agreement.” He grabbed a goblet from the table and held it out until one of the servants poured wine in it. “We drink.”
Ygritte raised her own glass and clinked it against his. “To alliances.”
They drank. And Romarrus made his way down the table, talking to the other dignitaries.
But then Mikhal crossed the room and pulled Ygritte’s glass from her hand. “You should start getting ready now.” He placed her goblet back on the table.
“One more thing to do first.”

She followed Galon, Natasha, Robin, and Baldir down to the dungeons. Lohir was being kept in a private cell. Aside from the fact that he couldn’t leave, it looked like a rather nice room.
Lohir looked up at their arrival. “To what do I owe the honor?”
Galon stepped forward when none of the others seemed inclined to talk. He told him how Oberon fell. Thunor, Syen, Vhindler. All gone.
Lohir just laughed. “They’re gods, you idiots. They’re not gone.”
Ygritte sighed. They would be getting nothing useful out of Lohir.
Mikhil was waiting for them outside of the dungeons. He grabbed Ygritte’s arm and rushed her back to her rooms.
The next hour was miserable. She was bathed, poked, prodded. Her hair was teased. She regretted picking women like Elsabeth Broadoak and Felixa Hardi as her ladies in waiting. Pulling from the guild recruits meant they weren’t as afraid of Ygritte as they would have otherwise been. And they were more scared of Pippa Potter, the lady of the chamber. Elsabeth Betty Von Himmel stood towards the back. Handing others things when they demanded. At least she was still scared of Ygritte.
A knock came from the door. Ygritte grasped at it as means for, if not escape, distraction.
“Betty,” Ygritte said. “Go get that.” Nenyana pulled a chunk of Ygritte’s hair painfully back. Ygritte swore.
Caroline walked in, passing Galon stationed on the outside of the door, and seemed surprised to see the ladies in waiting and Pippa directing all of them.
“Uh…” Caroline said. “Could we talk?”
Ygritte nodded, and winced as Nenyana pulled her hair again. “Sure.”
Caroline looked over at Betty. “Are you sure?”
Ygritte understood. “Betty,” she called. “Could you please take the jewels to Mikhil to get polished. He’ll be disappointed if they don’t shine.”
Betty nodded and left the room. Ygritte trusted the rest of the woman there. At least as much as she could.
Caroline watched the door shut. “Are you sure you’re ok with me wearing my uniform?”
“Yeah, of course. Wear what you would like.”
Caroline nodded. “Ok.” She looked again at the other women in the room. “So, is Buccarin coming?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think he will?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why wouldn’t he?”
“I don’t like to ask him to do things. It feels too much like a command and he’s had enough of that for a lifetime. I won’t do that to him.”
Caroline nodded. “Ok. So. I know this is a tricky topic. But I know you’re getting pressured to marry. So. I make the offer to marry you. I can be your beard. I have a title. It’s perfect.”
Ygritte smiled in spite of herself. “Thank you, Caroline. But I don’t think it’s just the marriage part people are complaining about.”
“Offer stands. I will be your beard. I won’t mind if you cheat on me.”
“You’re a good friend.”
Mikhil burst back in the room with the crown. “Remember, when this goes on your head, you are the crown. Be the crown.” He looked at Caroline. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
Caroline took that moment to escape as quickly as possible.
Ygritte was shoved into a blue dress that took 3 people to button and lace. The trim was silver, in spider web pattern. And the buttons were gold and shaped like roses. A blue velvet cape line with silver fur was draped over her shoulders. Her hair was brushed until it shown.
Mikhil took a step back and nodded in approval. “Damn, I’m good.”
“I’ll take it that I’m not a shit show.”
“Until you open your mouth.”
Ygritte shook her head, and began hiding her weapons where ever she could fit them.
Mikhil cleared his throat. “You don’t need those. You are surrounded by weapons.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the door. “I believe the wolf is armed to the teeth.”
“And what good will that do me if we’re separated.”
He shook his head and muttered something about overkill, but left the room. Ygritte bundled up her armor and handed it the Elsabeth. “Could you please place these behind the throne, discreetly?”
Elsabeth nodded. “You got it.”
Ygritte took a deep breath, though it was hard to do in the dress, and looked at herself in the mirror. She didn’t even look like herself. But maybe she looked a little bit like Rose.
They walked out into the hallway and Galon straightened a little. “You look nice,” he said.
Ygritte smiled a little, self conscience. Thousands of people would be seeing her real face. The thought made her skin crawl. “Thank you. I have a very important job for you.”
“Name it.”
She pulled a small silver flask from the dress and took a swig. Then handed it to Galon. “Keep this thing handy.”
He laughed. “As ordered.”
And then Mikhil whisked them down the hallway and to the throne room. Mikhil turned to her just before the doors opened. “Remember to smile. Smilers wear the crown.”
Ygritte plastered a smile across her face and stepped through the doors. She sought out the friendly faces of her companions as she walked the long expanse up to the throne.
Natasha was sitting with Baldir, Robin and Thumin, towards the middle of the room. Asa, Quarion, Irec, Visionaire and Petrus sat together near the front and to the left. Galon stayed to Ygritte’s right and Caroline took her place amongst the military. Vondarra looked momentarily torn on where to sit, but took her place with the other members of the royal court.
The ceremony began. Ygritte recited the rites as she had been taught. Reading the lineages and the titles. She knelt when she was supposed. Did the motions as need. All the while scanning the crowd. She knew Galon was doing the same, and she spotted Rucewyn towards the back of the room, also looking out for danger.
She finished the final recitation, and the crown was placed atop her head. She could see Mikhil in the back of the room, mouth words. Though he was too far away, she was sure they were ‘wear the crown, be the crown.’
Ygritte stood, and became empress of Himmelveil.
The procession lead out of the throne room and through the palace. Galon handed her the flask and she took another surreptitious sip.
“You did good, kid,” he said.
She nodded, and continued to smile and wave as they left the courtyard of the palace and entered the city.
She could see Galon tense as they walked out into the open. Ygritte scanned the rooftops, too, though she wasn’t looking for danger.
Eventually, the procession returned to the palace, and the party began. Galon handed the flask over for another quick shot.
“Thanks,” she said.
Music began to play. People began to dance. People walked up to Ygritte to congratulate her. It all became a blur. Eventually she found herself free of people, and she took a moment to breath. Galon had drifted away from her, but she could still see him through the crowd.
She spotted Petrus on the other side of the room, looking alone and out of place. Ygritte made her way to him.
“Hey,” she said.
He startled when he realized who was talking to him. “Um, hi.”
“Do you want to dance?”
He looked passed her to where Galon was standing in the crowd. “I think he’ll kill me.”
“I’m the empress, this is an order, shut up and dance with with me.”
He smiled a bit. “Thank you.”
Ygritte frowned. “Is that smoke coming out of your ears?”
He tapped at the sides of his head. “Oh, yeah, I guess it is.” But then he shrugged.
Petrus wasn’t a bad dancer. Ygritte actually had fun. But then she saw Kortara approaching Asa, and was suddenly hit with the fact that the last time they had dance, Asa had not been Asa. And Kortara didn’t know.
“Sorry, Petrus, got to go!” She rushed across the room. Distantly she saw Vondarra and Caroline also on the move, the three of them all attempting to avert disaster.
She was just in time to hear Asa go “I’m sorry, who are you?” and see the hope fall from Kortara’s face. Caroline and Vondarra whisked Kortara away, and Ygritte cornered Asa.
“Did I do something wrong?” He asked.
“Not intentionally,” she said. “We tried to set you up with her when you weren’t you.”
“Not your fault,” she said quickly. “But I think you should meet her officially. Because we do still think the two of you would hit it off.”
Asa rubbed the back of his head. “I don’t know…”
“Just give it a shot.”
Asa swallowed and turned towards where Caroline and Vondarra were talking to Kortara, and marched off like he was facing a battle. Ygritte sighed. At least he was dancing.
Across the hall, Ygritte saw Irec dancing with Betty. That might be a problem she’d have to deal with later. Quarion was regaling a crowd with tales of his heroics. She could see the cloud of glitter dust from here, and made a mental note to avoid that section of the room.
And then she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned and almost did a double take.
Buccarin stood in front her. His hair was washed and combed back from his face. He’d shaved. He was wearing clothes that actually fit him. They were finely tailored and looked like something to fit in in one of the noble districts. And he was no longer glowing orange.
He almost looked like he used to, before the incident.
“Wow,” he said. “Blue looks good on you.”
Ygritte smiled. Possibly her first real one all day. “Where did you get a suit last minute?”
He shrugged, pulled at the hem a little bit. “Just something I had, lying around.”
Which was a lie, but she’d let it slide. “Thank you for coming.”
He held out his hand to her, and Ygritte took it. This was the first time they danced together in over six years.
The music switched to something slow, and Ygritte stopped thinking for a little bit. She had other people to watch her back right now. She would enjoy the moment for a change.
The song ended, but they kept dancing. Until she saw Vondarra and Asa standing together on the other side of the room, gesturing towards her. Ygritte led Buccaring over to them.
“Our friends our back,” Asa said.
Ygritte nodded. “If they have the captive with them, bring him back. Let me know you’re on your way back. We’ll try to do this away from civilians.”
Asa and Vondarra took off towards the mansion.
“Trouble?” Buccarin asked.
Ygritte nodded. “Isn’t there always?” She tugged his hand back towards the dance floor. “Let’s at least enjoy this before all hell breaks loose.”
They danced through a few more songs before Visionaire approached them.
“Excuse me your highness. Have you seen where the lady Vondarra went?”
“She went back to the mansion with Asa.”
“Not like that! I sent them on an errand.”
He cheered a little. “Then I shall meet them there.” He floated from the room and off towards the mansion.
“Since when did I become in charge of other people’s love lives?” she asked.
Buccarin shrugged. “Aren’t you incharge of everything now.”
Asa’s voice crackled through the stone. “Ygritte, we’re on the way back to the palace with our missing friend.”
“When you get here, send him to the throne room. Then we need to wrangle the fake in, preferably alone.”
“I’m on it,” Vondarra said.
She turned to Buccarin. “Can you help me gather the others. We’re luring a dragon to the throne room”
He laughed. “Never a dull moment.” He squeezed her hand as they parted.
Ygritte caught Galon’s eye and he followed her out while Buccarin rounded up the team.
The throne room was thankfully empty when they arrived. Ygritte’s armor was stashed behind the throne just as she had asked of Elsabeth.
“Galon, I will never say these words to you again, but I need you to cut me out of this dress.”
She kicked her armor. “Need out of this. Need to get into that.”
He motioned over his shoulder. “I can go get your boy back.”
She clapped her hands in front of him. “Focus. Luring dragon here. Need armor. No time for anything else. Dragon imminent.”
Galon sobered and nodded. He cut through the laces on the back of the dress. It was much easier to get out of when she didn’t care about ruining it. Ygritte was just strapping on the last of her weapons when the others started trickingling in. Asa arrived with the real Blackaggar. He looked worn, tired, starved. And pissed off.
And then Vondarra, Pierro, and Krystal entered with the imposter. The black dragon.
The dragon wearing Blackager’s face smiled. “If this is how you want to play it, little girl, so be it.”

The White Stone Castle
A brush with death

They reappeared in a long and narrow room. The walls were made of white marble, seemingly of one stone. It look the same as the marble she had seen when she had looked through the black orb. A plush red carpet ran down the center of the room.
Most striking, though, were the statues flanking either side. Carved in beautiful relief were figures, and after a moment someone recognized them as gods. Gods from different pantheons and religions. There were even a few that Ygritte recognized. Though the figures of Natasha, Baldir, Robin, and the other Aetherials were unsettling to see. Whoever had carved these had seen the Aetherials up close. Natasha and Baldir didn’t seem phased, so the rest of them continued on.
The room continued a long ways, with a lone door at the other end. There would be little room to manoeuvre or mount a defense if they were trapped here.
“If someone comes through that door, we may lose our only exit,” Caroline said.
Galon nodded. “I’ll secure our exit, though I could use a little magical help.”
Vondarra nodded and hung back with Galon as the rest of them moved cautiously through the room. As they went, the statues were carved in greater relief, jutting out from the wall and turned towards them. It was an eerie effect. But at least they weren’t moving on their own.
The door at this end of the hall was unguarded and unlocked. Baldir kicked it open.
Ygritte sighed, and bit down on her urge to complain about stealth. The castle already knew they were here. One kicked door wasn’t going to make a difference.
This room was smaller. Stairs ran up either side of the room to a parapet. In the center were a raised dias and alter, a stone angel looming over the alter. She held weighing scales in one hand. A feather sat on one tray. The other was empty.
Ygritte didn’t know how, didn’t know what language they were supposed to be in, but she could read the runes around the scales. They said that a soul was to be judged and measured. Only then would the way be opened.
She glanced at her friends. If judging of souls was required, she wasn’t sure she wanted to get anywhere near the thing. Most of her friends weren’t an option either.
But Asa. Asa was a good man.
“I think I know how we get through here,” she said. She took Asa by the hand and led him up to the angel. He didn’t resist. Petrus followed.
“A soul needs to be judged,” Ygritte said.
Asa nodded. “I’ll do it.”
He reached out and touched the scales.
The Angel’s mouth opened, and a cloud of black smoke poured out, then trailed up Asa’s body and crawled down his throat. Ygritte had seen that look before. Not recognizing friend from foe. She didn’t want to hurt him, but if Asa hurt one of them he’d never forgive himself. She threw a handful of dust into Asa’s eyes, blinding him.
On either side of the angel, shadowy demons rose from the stone.
Quarion, for all his faults, recognized the situation quickly, and in a flash he had transported Asa somewhere, out of the room. He wouldn’t be able to hurt them and they wouldn’t have to hurt him. They would deal with where he had been transported to later.
Baldir threw a fireball behind one of the creatures. Whether the attack did anything or not, Ygritte was unclear. The smoke shifted around the damage.
The shadow demons struck out at Petrus, trying to wrap dark tentacles around him. Petrus escaped but seemed changed for the attack.
The fight was on.
The second shadow grabbed Ygritte around the waist, lifting her off the ground. She struggled and lashed out at it. It seemed like she hurt it, but it did not let go. Her mind felt like it was starting to slip, like she was losing herself, her personality. She hit it again.
Caroline was also grabbed, lifted off the ground. The expression on her face was blank, and horrifying.
A volley of arrows flew, first Natasha’s, then Buccarin’s, impacting both shadows, they shivered and shook, but didn’t fall.
Baldir again tried to throw magic at the shadow, this time aiming for the one that held Caroline and Ygritte. A cone of electricity shot towards them. Ygritte could feel it tingle along her skin, up her spine, but she twisted and the damage skipped over her. Caroline was not so lucky. The shadow struck her again and Caroline lost consciousness.
Petrus, Irec, and Rucewyn focused their attacks on the other shadow, and eventually downed it. But not before Irec took another blow and fell to the ground, also unconscious.
The shadowy tendril tightened around Ygritte, another joined it, wrapping around her throat. She couldn’t breathe. Something tore into her, blinding pain, pulling her away. Ygritte screamed. She was still screaming when she no longer had a throat. And she watched as the beast threw her body aside like a broken doll.
The monster did it again to Caroline, ripping her soul from her body. Then it pulled the stone from Caroline’s chest and disappeared.
The room fell to horrified silence.
“Rose!” Buccarin ran across the room to her fallen body, then stared up at her spirit. They could still see her. She shook her head. She didn’t know what to say.
Slowly, the group set about to healing what they could, restoring themselves to working order. Caroline and Ygritte hovered above all of it. Caroline seemed to waver between anger and maniacal hysteria. Ygritte was just sad.
“We still have to deal with Asa,” Petrus said quietly.
“I sent him to a maze,” Quarion said. “When he comes back, it’ll be on the spot that he left.”
“Right where he left?” Baldir asked. He hefted his ax. Petrus and Irec also made ready to strike.
“Wait!” Ygritte said. Her voice sounded hollow, off, but they all looked up at her. “It’s not Asa’s fault. This thing took him over. Don’t hurt him.”
Petrus and Irec readily agreed. Baldir grumbled, but changed his grip on the ax to attack with the flat of the blade.
Asa zapped back to this plane. Petrus struck him, knocked him over. Ygritte would have held her breath if she had breath to hold.
Asa held up a hand. “It’s ok, I’m ok now.” Then he looked up, saw Buccarin cradling Ygritte’s corpse, Caroline’s body discarded on the stairs. Ygritte gave a sad little wave when he looked up at her. “Oh, Ygritte,” Asa said, his voice breaking. “No.”
She shrugged. “It’s not your fault.”
“It’s fine!” Quarion yelled. “I can fix this. He placed one hand on Ygritte’s body and extended his other hand to her. He began to blink in and out of existence. “Take my hand.” After a moment, she reached out and touched Quarion’s hand.
Nothing happened.
“Q, you screwed it up again!” Caroline had wavered back towards anger, and struck out at Quarion.
And then she was gone.
Ygritte’s body stirred and sat up. Buccarin looked back up at her, still floating near the ceiling.
“Oh shit.” It was Ygritte’s voice, Ygritte’s body, but Caroline’s tone and cadence.
Anger finally hit her in a wave. “Give me back my body! Get out!”
Caroline just started laughing.
And then everyone began arguing. They needed to move on, but they were reluctant to leave without restoring Ygritte.
And then she notice that the angel statue was staring at her. Steady and unblinking. And she remembered the words she had read when this had all began. A soul needed to be judged. It hadn’t worked before because Asa wasn’t a soul.
She reached out and touched the scales.
It felt like being pulled back through time and space, a fish hook stuck somewhere behind her ribs, thrown into the past. And she saw it all. Everything. Every moment of her life. A puppet along for the ride, unable to change anything. Unable to alter any of her darkest moments or hang on to moments of happiness. The fire that had burned down her childhood home. When Tormund had found her in the wreckage. Her training in the Red Tower. When she and Buccarin were first partnered together and then torn apart. Meeting with Krod and then joining up with Asa, Natasha, Quarion, and Irec. The fall of the guild. The shadow killing her and ripping her soul from her body.
She re-lived all of it. Every moment.
And then she was floating in front of the dias again.
“Choose.” The angel’s voice came from inside Ygritte’s own head. “Choose who will stand for you. Choose your patron god.”
Ygritte had never been a religious person. It wasn’t encouraged in the guild. She didn’t know who to pray to or ask for help. Somehow, she couldn’t help but think that Asa’s nameless one wouldn’t like her very much.
But she did know a few gods.
“Natasha,” she breathed. And then, remembering. “Helena the huntress.”
The angel nodded.
From the other room, stone scrapped against stone, and Natasha’s statue appeared in the doorway, before coming to a stop next to Ygritte on the alter.
“I did my job, and I did it well,” Ygritte said. Though she didn’t know if she was convincing the angel, the stone statue of Natasha, or herself. The scales began to balance. The feather dipped and rose, before finally falling below the level of the other tray.
A hidden door behind the dais slid open, revealing darkness.
Ygritte floated down from the dias. Caroline had stood and was rummaging through Ygritte’s bags. “Get off my stuff and get out of my body.”
“Why don’t I put you in Caroline’s body until we can figure this out?” Quarion asked. Ygritte nodded begrudgingly, and soon found herself in Caroline’s body. The armor was heavy and cumbersome, and she was unused to sword and shield.
But then Caroline took off running into the darkness and Ygritte followed after. She wouldn’t let Caroline throw her body into danger. The other woman didn’t seem to be anywhere near her right mind. Ygritte would have her nervous breakdown later, when she didn’t need to function. For now she compartmentalized.
The space felt massive, and magic would not cut through the darkness. She was aware of Caroline right in front of her, hanging on to Asa and Quarion, and Ygritte followed her down the steps. She also became aware of a nagging need, a longing. The stone. Caroline’s body wanted the stone.
The noise of a rushing river reached them, and they stumbled into it at the bottom of the stairs. Quarion stuck a finger in it and tasted it. “Blood,” he gasped.
Petrus was already searching over the river, hanging from the ceiling. Then Asa and Quarion took to the air, searching for a way across, anything different than the river of blood.
The blood kept rising, and they backed up a few steps.
“There’s a door and more stairs over here,” Asa called.
Before anyone could stop her, Caroline dove into the river.
“God dammit,” Ygritte muttered, and followed directly after. Distantly she was aware of someone splashing into the water behind her.
But she hadn’t counted on Caroline’s armor. It became more difficult to swim, the armor pulling her under.
Someone lit a torch, and the entire ceiling was engulfed in flame.
Ygritte was the only one still visible in the water, getting pulled farther and farther away from the stairs. The armor was a weight around her chest, her shoulders, pulling her under. She took a deep breath as her head started to dip below the surface.
And then she was sitting at a table in an airy room, free of blood and grime. Through the open window, she recognized the familiar streets of Himmelveil. Everyone was here and looking equally confused.
At the end of the table was a thin, dark haired man in finely tailored clothes.
“Hey guys,” Petrus said. “This is Death.”
Death nodded and lifted a teapot. “Tea?”
Ygritte accepted a cup, as did several of her companions. One should never be rude to Death.
“As I was just telling young Petrus here, I have found myself in a bit of a conundrum. Thanatotek has trapped me. I’m rather embarrassed to say so, but he is in love with me, with death. And he is keeping me here to better control me.”
Petrus perked up. “I asked him to help us.”
“Help us how?” Ygritte asked.
Death turned to her with a smile. It made her blood run cold. She flashed back to her soul being ripped from her body, reliving her life in painful, excruciating detail. Ygritte forced her face to neutrality, and then returned Death’s smile.
“Well,” Death said. “If you help me escape, I could grant you a reprieve from ever joining me. You would essentially become deities.” He nodded towards Ygritte. “You would eventually become a death god.”
Ygritte and Caroline looked at each other. “Which one do you actually mean?”
“Oh yes. That is a bit confusing. Would you like me to fix it?”
“Yes, please.”
Death waved his hand and for a disorienting moment Ygritte felt like she was being pulled between two places. But then she found herself settled firmly in her own body. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
Death steepled his fingers. “So, what’ll it be? Do you accept?”
“Yes!” Quarion yelled, giving a thumbs up.
The rest of them exchanged glances. Ygritte looked over at Baldir and Natasha. They seemed happy enough being deities.
She thought of the vision she had had of Thanatotek, sitting on a throne atop a pile of bones, herself standing before him. She needed to keep that from happening. But would this get her closer, or farther away from the vision? Death had said Thanatotek was in love with him. If she became a death god, what would that mean? But any sort of of power could help her stop Thanatotek, could help save the empire.
“No, absolutely not,” Rucewyn said. “I’m good being mortal.”
“No,” Asa said.
Death nodded. “Would you like me to lead you to the Nameless One instead?”
Asa opened his mouth to answer, but Ygritte slammed her hand down on the table. “You are not done here.”
“Why? I’m just getting everyone hurt.”
Petrus held up his hands. “Ok, let’s table that discussion for later. We still need to finish this. We’ll talk later, ok, Asa?” And then he mumbled something about interventions.
One by one they went around the table, giving Death their answers. Buccarin watched her closely. Ygritte nodded. “Yes,” she said.
Buccarin nodded too. “Yes.”
“Wonderful, then,” Death said. “Since I think you’ll die in this castle before you find them, let me give you a head start.”
And with that, they found themselves in a white marble room, with the orbs of dragonkind displayed on the table. The room she had seen when she looked through the black orb.
“They’re trapped,” Quarion said. “Go big boom.”
“I’ve got this,” Ygritte said. Before anyone could stop her, she pulled out her tools and disabled the first trap, freeing the golden orb. Caroline grabbed it and put it in her bag of holding.
“Wait!” Asa yelled. He grabbed Ygritte’s hands as she was reaching for the next orb. “You are too important to do this.”
“No one else stands a shot at safely disabling these, and then we’re all dead.”
“Then take this.” He offered her the stone of divination. “I’ll help guide your hands.”
Ygritte hesitated. She hadn’t touched an infinity stone before. She didn’t really want to. But if she slipped they’d all be dead. “Ok.”
With the help of the stone, Ygritte made quick work of the traps, and they stashed the orbs of dragonkind in the bag of holding.
Handing the stone back to Asa was an interesting experience. It wanted her to keep it, keep using it. Just a little more. With some difficulty, she handed it back. She didn’t want to touch it again.
“Great!” Quarion yelled. “Let’s go home. Group hug!”
And he teleported them back to the mansion.
“Asa, can you find where my stone is?” Caroline asked.
He nodded. “I can try.”
Scrying for it showed them the shadow demon, arriving on on a battlefield strewn with blood. It handed the stone to Thanatotek.
The wall had fallen.
Ygritte slipped out as quickly as she could. Buccarin watched her leave, but didn’t stop her.
There were too many things to think about. She needed to find some way to save Thumin, still solid stone in her bag. Galon would not be happy when he found out the full story of what had happened in the white stone castle. She’d have to keep an eye on Caroline. She hadn’t handled the experience so well. How much more could she take before she cracked?
Her hands started to shake and she ran them through her hair. She had seen too much today.
She needed reports from the battlefield. How many people had died? How many lives lost?
How long before Thanatotek reached the city?

The Empress enters the Spellwilds

Ygritte woke with a start, reaching for her weapons, ready to defend herself in a strange place. It took a moment for her to remember that she was home, her new home in the palace. She didn’t think she would ever get used to that.
Mikhil had tried to convince her that she wouldn’t need her weapons. She had arched an eyebrow and asked how that had worked for Isobelle. The argument was over.
At least, that argument was over. Mikhil had insisted that court positions needed to be filled. Ygritte had agreed. And that had been where their agreement had ended. He had been appalled at the ‘killers and thieves’ she had chosen for most of her ladies in waiting (Buccarin would forgive her for pulling from the guild recruits), so she had compromised by appointing Pippa to oversee them. He hadn’t yet realized the implications of letting her name Elsabeth to the ladies in waiting. She wondered if he would or if it would ever need to be an issue she had to push.
The day had ended with Mikhil urging her to start thinking about what a marriage union could do for the empire. She had slammed the door in his face. He’d yelled about discussing it more in the morning.
She could hear Mikhil’s cane tapping on the marble at the end of the hall. Of course he was already awake.
She needed a break. And she could do far more good on the battlefield than she would sitting in a marble palace right now. Tormund should be arriving by nightfall and she trusted him to make decisions in her stead. She scribbled a note for Mikhil and slipped out the window.
The Lovers’ Spires would be the first place someone would look for her. So she made her way to the mansion. It hadn’t been her home for a long time, and even then she had spent little time there. She was sure her friends had gone, but maybe somewhere there would know where they had gone to.
She was surprised to see unfamiliar servants. They didn’t recognize her or realize she used to live there. It was an odd feeling. She could hardly go anywhere these days without being recognized. It was both freeing and annoying. Though they seemed reluctant to let her in.
Luckily, Visionaire was in the kitchen. And so, apparently, were the dragons she had helped rescue.
They knew little of where her friends had gone, though Visionaire did express concern for Vondarra’s safety.
“Perhaps Thumin would know,” Visionaire added. “He took them somewhere.”
Ygritte was always happy at the mention of her friend and having her first real lead to find the others. She walked out to the foyer, away from the breakfast guests. “Thumin,” she called.
And just like before, the raven zapped into the room. “Yes?”
Ygritte smiled. “First, there is breakfast in the next room. You are welcome to it. Second, were you the one to transport my friends?”
The raven squawked. “Yes, I took them to see the seer.”
“The seer? Do you know where they went after?”
“I do not. But I can take you there.”
Ygritte hesitated. She wanted to jump at the offer, but realized that more was at stake than just her life. She couldn’t walk into a possible trap alone. “Would you be willing to get a few friends for me?”
The raven nodded.
This would be a good testing of her new captain of the guard. Rucewyn had proven himself capable in the under city. It’d be good to test his skills under other circumstances.
But he was unproven. And she had no idea what she might be walking into, or how long it would take to find the others.
Buccarin had expressed interested in fighting dragons.
Thumin left and a moment later reappeared with the two men.
Ygritte explained the situation. Both accepted, though Rucewyn seemed concerned with the threat to her safety.
Buccarin smirked. “Get used to it,” he said.
Thumin transported them to the Seer’s mountain.
The landed in a blood bath.
Blood dripped from the walls and ceiling, settled on the floor in puddles. Across from them, the Seer’s head hung from the walls. His eyes had been gouged out.
The three of them drew their weapons, ready to attack. But whoever had done this was long gone.
“There isn’t any damage,” Ygritte said.
“No,” Rucewyn agreed. He walked the room like he knew what he was doing. “Whoever killed him knew what they were looking for.”
Ygritte met Buccarin’s eyes. They both knew that the Seer had had a stone.
“Why take his eyes?” Rucewyn asked.
Ygritte shrugged. “He was an oracle, of sorts. Maybe it’s just insult and defacing the body. Maybe they’ll be useful for something.”
She walked over to the desk that the Seer had worked from. The papers were picked through, but a looking glass had been left behind. Ygritte picked it up and raised it to her eye, worrying about what would come next.
Her vision clouded, and she saw a field of bones. Thousands and thousands of bones. In the center, a throne sat atop the largest pile. The figure that occupied the chair was giant, with gray skin and hulking features. He wore gold plate armor, with a glowing stone socketed in each segment. A woman stood behind him, her face lost in the shadows of a hood.
In front of them, almost lost in of the sea of bones, stood a figure, dwarfed by the size of the giant and the woman.
The vision started to break up. But the figure turned to the side, and Ygritte saw her own face in profile.
Buccarin was staring at her when she came back to herself. He raised an eyebrow.
Ygritte shook her head and slipped the looking glass into her bag of holding. She felt cold and deeply unsettled. She’d talked to him later about what she had seen, perhaps, but not now.
“Thumin,” she said. “Do you know where my friends went from here?”
“The spellwilds, I believe.”
“Could you take us to them?”
The Raven shrugged, which was quite the feat. “I can try.”
“Would you? Please?”
The bird nodded and they vanished from the crime scene, reappearing in forest. Ygritte hiccuped.
Then she noticed Thumin plummeting from the sky and dove to catch him, leaping through the air. It was only after she caught him that she realized the bird had turned to stone. She held him on her lap, ran her fingers along the stone feathers. This was her fault for asking him to come along. She had to find a way to fix him. She hiccuped again and placed him into her bag of holding, where he’d be safe for now.
She stood and wiped bits of dirt from her hands and knees. Then noticed Buccarin was glowing, a faint orange light emanating from him. He held his hand in front of his face, disbelieving.
She hiccuped.
Rucewyn stopped next to them. “Are those your friends?” he asked. But his voice came out all wrong, high pitched and squeaking. His face twisted in surprise.
“Welcome to the spellwilds!” Quarion called. Leaves were growing from the side of his head. “Magic is fun here!”
The three of them walked over to the other group, who looked worn and tired but relatively fine. Except Natasha was also purple.
“What are you doing here?” Asa asked. “You shouldn’t be here, it’s not safe.” He looked shaken.
“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I needed to get out of the palace.” This needed to be said. “The Seer is dead. Natasha, I’m so sorry.”
The other woman blinked. “Thank you for telling me.”
“What did you see?” Galon asked.
So Ygritte told them what had been discovered at the Seer’s mountain, with Buccarin and Rucewyn filling in details when able. She left out the looking glass, though she could nearly feel it’s weight pulling on her bag. She hiccuped.
“We need to get moving,” Galon said.
Natasha had a map, and took off in the lead. Ygritte fell into step besides her. She seemed to be taking the death of her friend as well as could be expected, but Ygritte would offer silent support anyway. Rucewyn and Galon moved to flank to two of them. Everyone else trailed behind.
Suddenly something black and large and full of teeth dropped from the trees in front of her, screaming. Ygritte took off running, trying to put as much distance between herself and the threat. It didn’t matter what it was, she just needed to get away.
There was a commotion behind her. Ygritte kept running. Suddenly her cloak was snagged by an arrow, pinning it to a tree. She stopped to pull the arrow loose and for the first time saw the scene.
It was chaos. Rucewyn and Quarion had appeared somewhat near her. Smoke billowed from the ears of Natasha, Vondarra, and Caroline. The latter had also seemed to age 10 years. All three of them had turned on Petrus. Asa was standing naked not far away, surrounded by a pile of ash. Galon was nowhere to be seen. Buccarin stood in the center of it and shrugged.
Ygritte tossed the arrow to the ground. “It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything is fine. Stop.”
Slowly, everyone put down their weapons.
“At least you don’t have hiccups anymore,” Petrus said, and slinked into the trees.
Ygritte shook her head, took a deep breath, then reached into her bag of holding. She still had some cold weather gear in there, and though it would be comically short on Asa, it was better than nothing. He took the pants, embarrassed.
“Alright, now where is Galon?”
Everyone shrugged. He’d disappeared when Rucewyn had tried to teleport.
Asa was able to point them towards a cave that he believed to be the place that Galon had been teleported to. A cave was good. A cave meant he wasn’t buried alive.
Large footprints surrounded the mouth of the cave, marking the comings and goings of a large beast. Or several. It would be better if they didn’t need to go in and face the creature in the dark. Ygritte called to Galon, and eventually he came wandering out. He still looked like he was spoiling for a fight, so she assured him she was fine and urged everyone to keep going.
Irec spoke up, and Ygritte realized that he had been with them this whole time, only made invisible by the spell wilds. The idea of an invisible hulk was somewhat disturbing.
They walked through forest, again in silence. Smoke still drifted from the ears of a few of her companions.
Across the trail in front of them, they saw movement. Then a fox skipped through the underbrush, walking on hind legs like a man.
Galon leaned forward. “Hello,” he said.
The fox nodded. “Hello.”
And Galon sputtered. He clearly hadn’t been expecting the fox to respond in common. Galon was at a loss for how to deal with him.
But the fox introduced himself as Renaurd and was a helpful creature, stuck in the spellwilds for who knew how long. Ygritte gave him a ration bar. Quarion muttered something about her always feeding strays, but he shut up after a hard look.
Renuard warned them of the Jubjub bird and the bandersnatch, and went on his way.
They continued through the woods until they came upon a white stone fortress. The white wall rose fifty feet high, and a seemingly unguarded archway cut through the middle of it. Caroline said their best attempt at surprise would be to go over the stone wall and attack from above. Ygritte nodded, turned invisible, and made a run to the wall, aware that if she hesitated, someone might try to stop her. A cannon was fired at her friends still remaining in the tree line.
Petrus followed her, leapt over the top, and slammed into invisible air. Irec joined she and Petrus at the base of the wall. Something was blocking their way. A wall of force. Ygritte fired a volley of arrows into the center of the archway, hitting nothing but the wall of force. But it did not destroy it.
But she did not have an enchanted bow.
From across the clearing, Natasha fired arrow after arrow, destroying the stone around the archway.
Irec took the hint and smashed the same stone. The wall trembled.
Vondarra saw their aim and what they were up against, and dispelled the last of the wall of force that kept them from moving forward.
A demon stalked towards them. Ygritte unleashed a barrage of kunai and dove out of the way. She might as well have thrown darts. It shrugged off the poison as if it were nothing.
A glance behind her showed Quarion ringed with flames, everyone else diving away from him. But the demon staggered with the damage. Caroline moved to face it head on, but Natasha hit it with another volley of arrows and Baldir moved in with the killing blow.
Galon, Buccarin, and Rucewyn rushed past her to fight one of the two constructs lumbering from the back of the room. Ygritte wouldn’t be able to get there in time to help them, so she pulled the black orb from her bag. The cold of the stone seeped up her fingers as she touched it. Acid bubbled up her throat and she spit a line of of the green liquid at the creature. It staggered, the acid eating through metal and bolts, but kept moving. Baldir once again moved in and struck a devastating blow, showering those closest to it with shrapnel.
In the same motion, Baldir spun and took the head clean off the second construct. But it kept moving. Natasha fired another round of arrows and this one, too, exploded into a cloud of metal and gas.
Buccarin staggered and fell.
Ygritte’s heart froze.
But Caroline was already moving across the battlefield. She used the stone to heal him, then met Ygritte’s eyes across the courtyard. She nodded.
Asa had not moved from the treeline, and Vondarra and Quarion were trying to coax him forward now that the danger had ended. But Asa shrunk back. Whatever he had experienced at the ends of his captors, it had left deeper marks on him than any scar could. He was right to resign his position. But he never should have come along now.
Their way forward was barred by a small door. Some trick of magic increased their size as they neared it. But Quarion figured out the puzzle quickly. He urged them to the far side of the room, where they were normal sized. Ygritte took Buccarin’s hand.
Quarion teleported them onward.

Delving Into the Black Reach, a Samwell Story
Or How Asa Met His Father, But Never Really Met Him At All

On the 9th of Puca in the year 2013 Fort Birchwood had visitors. The fort was not notified in advance and thus was frenzied. The visitor was the Grand Knight Marshal himself, Asa Murica. Samwell Gafferson recognized him instantly even though he had never seen him before. There weren’t many people in the realm who wore the Marshal’s crest with the distinction of Captain Murica. Samwell did his best to restrain his excitement and went about his regular duties. Or at least he tried to.

He had read before of the exploits of Asa Murica and the “Heroes of Himmelveil.” It began with infrequent reports and stories coming out of the Battle of Himmelveil and the White Dragon invasion, but it was difficult to know what the truth was amongst all the powers, successes, and inconsistencies. Did they really save the city singlehandedly? Don’t even try to convince him they fell through a hole in the sky! How could only ten individuals defeat an entire horde of attacking dragons?

At the end of the day they were just stories. Samwell preferred to believe what he saw with his own eyes.

But the War with Hydran brought even more stories: the killer archer, the elvish gods, the invisible assassin, the strange mage, the eternal wolf, the flying captain, the red sorceress, the green beast, and the re-born priest. There were too many tales to believe them all, but there were too many tales to believe there wasn’t something true behind them.

And there was something special about the priest turned paladin. His strength of leadership, his consistent example, his impeccable integrity, and his spiritual morality all deeply appealed to Samwell. In all the tales, he heard again and again his mother’s lessons of the Nameless One and his father’s character-building. Or maybe it was something else entirely. But regardless, Asa Murica the man called to something deep within him.

And there he was: the newly appointed leader of the Marshals, Samwell’s ultimate superior, and the man Samwell looked up to and emulated, surprising them all at the fort, and striding purposefully through their gates. So don’t blame Samwell if he didn’t get much done. He wasn’t alone. Despite looking busy and running around frantically, all of Fort Birchwood buzzed with wonder.

From his place by the stables Samwell tended to Redwing, his roc and animal companion, but he glanced sideways at the visitors, trying not to be obvious. Redwing chirped at him. He knew Samwell wasn’t giving him his full attention.

“Good luck, Cy,” Samwell muttered with a laugh, glad it was left to Captain Cynero Glass, the fort commander, to greet Grand Marshal Murica and his companions. Redwing squawked this time.

As Samwell watched, Captain Murica walked and demanded attention. His shining mithral plate armor shone under the overcast sky as if reflecting a sun only it saw. His white cloak billowed behind him. A large, adamantine shield emblazoned with an image of the sun peeked from its perch on his back as it moved. A sword of unknown worth was buckled at his side. But beyond his gear, there was stature in his bearing which validated all that had been told about him. Was it regal, perhaps? It was certainly confident. There was aggression in his stride but simultaneously there was peacefulness or contentment which belied the violence of his exploits from the war. This truly was a dichotomy of a man. Samwell shook his head with wonder. He was impressed. He hoped he’d have the chance to meet him.

Asa’s companions, whom Samwell recognized as some of the “Heroes of Himmelveil,” were an odd, eclectic bunch, but Samwell could tell that they belonged together. Samwell had seen something like it before.

As the War with Hydran brewed back east, Samwell was tasked with creating small units of mounted flying cavalries. These strike forces could fly in and fly out and were greatly successful wherever they were used during the war at dispossessing Hydran soldiers of their timing, their organization, and ultimately some of their lives before escaping back to base to fight again another day. Like any elite unit, they were built out of the best riders and fighters at Fort Birchwood. And like all soldiers they didn’t always get along. They came from different parts of the land with different backgrounds, races, and life experiences. But Samwell’s leadership brought them together and they found a way to put aside their differences when it was required of them to take the fight to their enemies and work as one. Samwell believed this group had learned likewise.

The mage Quarion was tall and gangly, with bright eyes, mischievous almost. His dark hair was slightly mussed, swept back and tucked behind his pointed ears but he had an immaculately clipped and maintained goatee. He walked breezily, holding a staff and moving it as if using it as a walking stick, which he was obviously not. For he was so lithe and comfortable on his feet it was almost as if he were floating across the top of the earth. Samwell looked twice to make sure he was actually walking. He smiled at the thought and hoped no one saw his double-take. Quarion looked happy to be there, just along for the ride.

Two knights walked with Asa, too, one on either side.

The first was the recently appointed leader of the Wardens, Caroline Hala. Samwell didn’t know much about her but he recognized the insignia, for Fort Birchwood welcomed wardens from time to time as they traveled to or from their posts along the borders of the empire. They did this in the spirit of cooperation, of course. There was friendly jesting and competition if the visits allowed for some recreation, but the standing orders at the fort were to always lend them comfort, rest, or aid whenever called upon.

Captain Hala walked confidently at Asa’s side, purposeful and direct. She was a striking woman with beautiful, flowing blond hair, nearly platinum in color. There were tight braids along the sides above her ears, tied back and holding her hair away from her face. An interesting blue tattoo, like claw scars, was drawn across her left eye. Samwell wondered what the story behind it was. Her expression was one of constant determination and it was clear she’d defer to no one. Samwell couldn’t imagine she had to prove herself to anyone. After all, one couldn’t rise to this level of authority without some evidence of competency. Perhaps she simply knew better than to take anything for granted.

On Asa’s other side trudged the other knight, as if the weight of years lay heavy upon his shoulders. Ah, those pauldrons! It was Galon, the Wolf of the Empire. His gait was tense, dogged, perhaps. His legs were slightly bowed and his knees bent as if ready to pounce. Old scars marked his face and a long brown moustache trailed down his cheeks towards his chin. His expression was grim. Samwell wondered if he always looked so dour. If Samwell had the chance, he’d speak to him directly and look him in the eye. Why risk anything else? Be about your business and all will be well. Samwell respected his focus.

The last of Captain Murica’s companions was a woman, tall and graceful in her brown leather armor with flowing red hair. She carried a bow. She seemed elvish, but different somehow. She wasn’t like any elf Samwell had ever seen. Compared to the mage, anyway, her features were a little sharper, a little lighter, airier maybe? That was the word that came to Samwell’s mind but even he didn’t know exactly what he thought by it. Samwell had read of an archer who travelled with Asa. No one ever seemed to learn her name; just that she was a devastating killer. She dealt more death with her bow than all the others combined. It seemed that way, anyway, if the stories were to be believed. Samwell saw that she was light on her feet and calm of expression, but the threat was ever present in her blue eyes. Tread carefully. Don’t give her a reason to nock an arrow.

Redwing chirped at him again, breaking the spell. Samwell, laughing, returned his attention to the roc and blushed a little, self-conscious at being distracted by these mighty heroes in his midst. Redwing trilled a little and fluttered his feathers. He was anxious to fly. “Soon, friend,” Samwell said, smiling, and got back to brushing him down.

Finishing a brushstroke, Samwell was startled by a throat clearing behind him and jerked upright.

“Got a sec?” Captain Cynero Glass said. The Captain was Samwell’s best friend at the fort and his commanding officer.

“Yes, sir,” Samwell said as he sheepishly turned to face him.

Cy had a twinkle in his eye and a smile crept in at the left corner of his mouth. He put his hands on the gate of Redwing’s pen and leaning in said, “Come with me. There are some people I want you to meet.”

Asa and his companions slowed at the approach of the two men. Samwell walked beside, but slightly behind Captain Glass, in deference to his rank and leadership. His stomach was tight but squirrely. He was anxious but tried hard not to show it. It was important that this man, above all others, saw something in him to respect.

“Grand Marshal Murica,” Cy said. “Welcome to Fort Birchwood. I’m Captain Cynero Glass and this is Colonel Samwell Gafferson, my flight training master. We weren’t expecting you. I assure you we’re ready for your inspection. Allow me to show you around.”

“Yes. I’ve heard good things of your organization here, Captain Glass, but I’m not here for an inspection. I have other business in the area. Do you have a moment to speak privately?”

“Yes sir. Let’s go to my office. If you’ll follow me?”

Asa motioned for him to lead the way and they followed the captain indoors. Captain Glass snapped his fingers at his aide while offering to get Asa and his companions some refreshment, but they declined. He motioned to a seat. Asa deferred, but Quarion sat down immediately, crossing his legs in front of him and smiling grandly.

“What can we do for you?” the Captain asked.

Asa, somewhat awkwardly, proceeded to tell Captain Glass about his mission. It was something of a personal quest for Asa. Some documentation had just surfaced and was shared with Asa by Empress Issobelle indicating the organization Blackwatch had, years ago, sent a man called Jacques Simmons to Fort Birchwood on a mission called Operation Black Talon. He was sent to infiltrate and investigate an organization called the Black Talon, and a man named Elir DeMonde.

Samwell and Cy both started at the mention of the DeMonde name and shared a quick glance. They’d had some run-ins with the DeMondes. Samel DeMonde was the local lord and the oldest son of Elir. Unfortunately, Samwell had done them a bad turn.

For Samwell had “stolen” Rosario, the arranged fiancé of Jean-Piero DeMonde, Samel’s youngest brother. It was an arranged match. Rosario agreed to the courtship at first, mostly out of honor to her father, but she was not invested in the match. JP was unappealing and a bit of a blowhard. One night, when she met Samwell at the local watering hole, they had an instant connection. Rosario never gave JP another thought and left the match behind, repercussions be damned.

Over the recent years JP’s oldest brother Samel had presented difficulties for the fort. He (though more typically it was the brutish JP) never failed to lord his position over the soldiers there, especially Samwell, whenever there was opportunity.

If DeMonde and the Order of the Black Talon were involved, they knew it couldn’t be good. The Order of the Black Talon was founded by the DeMonde family around 200 years ago. They had been granted sanction by the Theosian church and the Empire to practice the dark arts of necromancy. One had to tread carefully if infringing upon the DeMondes and their domain.

Asa now believed that the man called Jacques Simmons was in fact Stephen Murica, Asa’s father, believed dead and lost when Asa was just a small boy. So he and his companions came here to see what they could discover about this Jacques Simmons, or Stephen Murica, and the outcome of the Blackwatch mission investigating the Order of the Black Talon.

There was silence when Asa finished. It was sobering to Samwell to hear the pain and uncertainty in Asa’s voice. The slight tremulousness when mentioning his father, believed to be dead so long ago. Asa hadn’t thought of his father for thirty years. What was he obligated to do today? What was he supposed to feel?

“Our information mentioned something called the Black Reach,” Asa said after a moment. “We understand that is near Fort Birchwood in the Plains of Alcarin. We would appreciate any information in Fort Birchwood’s records regarding Jacques Simmons, Stephen Murica, and the Black Reach, from approximately thirty years ago. And if you have someone who could guide us there…”

“Yes, sir. Absolutely. I’ll get my aide on that right away, sir.” Captain Glass snapped to it. He hollered for Private Saison, who opened the door instantly as if listening from just outside. Glass barked out the words he presumed the private already knew: “Records. Blackwatch. The Black Reach. Black Talon. Elir DeMonde. Jacques Simmons. Stephen Murica. Circa 1983. Go.” And Private Saison was off. “And here,” Glass continued, gesturing towards Samwell,” is my best tracker. He’ll guide you to the Black Reach whenever you’re ready to go.”

Samwell snapped to attention when Cy mentioned his name. He fixed his gaze on Captain Murica, who simply nodded. There was appreciation in his eyes, but a hint of sadness, too, as if he were fighting against something deep within.

Samwell rose well before dawn. Rosario stirred when he got up and he stopped to look at her and the way the bedsheet sloped up and down again over the curve of her hip. Her breathing was light and easy. Wavy black hair nested around her face, which was turned to the side, her lips slightly parted. He reached out and brushed away a loose strand of hair from in front of her closed eyes. She stirred again and Samwell pulled away. It was hard to believe they’d been together for four years. Simultaneously, every day was new yet he felt like they had known each other all their lives. Perhaps, Samwell thought, it was because he scarcely remembered what life was like without her. Damn, he was happy.

He ate a quick bite of jerky and drank a half-pint of water in the dark of the small kitchen area. He shook off the last respites of sleep with some light calisthenics. He dressed warmly and prepared for the ride out to the star stone. Private Saison had found records of the visit of a Jacques Simmons, but not much more. Everything pointed to Blackstone, a seven-foot tall obelisk of star stone standing quiet and desolate in a field about two-hours from the fort as the bird flies.

Samwell knew where it was but he never went there. No one did. There was darkness there and most were content to simply stay away.

He dressed and then unpacked his leather armor. The armor was brown, with swatches of red tinting and some additional detailing of feathers and falcons. It wasn’t grandiose in the way of the Wolf’s glorious pauldrons or Asa’s shiny plate, but it was art and Samwell was blessed to own it. Deliberately he strapped it on, piece by piece he hooked hooks and clasped clasps and readied his mind for the day.

His crossbow and longsword were waiting by the door where he left them and he picked them up on his way out. The fort was quiet. There was a pair of guards posted by the gates and one or two others jogging around the courtyard. Samwell walked briskly toward the stables. Redwing squawked when Samwell entered. He was raring to go.

Samwell prepared him for flight. He brushed him down before placing the riding blanket and securing his military saddle. All the while Samwell spoke to him, comforting him, encouraging him, telling him about the day ahead. The fluttering, twittering and chirping increased as Samwell told his tale. Redwing was excited. When he was ready, Samwell took him for a quick flight around the walls of Fort Birchwood. They didn’t need checked; the guards were attentive. It was simply a quick run to warm him up. When Samwell returned Redwing to the stables, the sky had begun to lighten. Dawn was approaching. Samwell asked the stable attendant to prepare some additional rocs for the travelling party in case they were required. Content that he had prepared for the journey as best he could, he walked out into the courtyard and saw the heroes gathered.

It was time to go.

The sun rose across the eastern horizon as the team flew across the plains of Alcarin and towards the Blackstone. Asa and Galon hopped on one of the fort’s other rocs while Quarion and Natasha and Caroline all flew magically. Samwell understood such magic; he had wings himself he could use to fly if need be. But there was something primal about riding a roc, about controlling a beast, feeling its heart beat and blood rush, becoming as one. He preferred it to almost anything else.

The sky that morning was clear. The air was crisp. There was a slight breeze blowing from the northwest, bringing with it some of the chill of the northern mountains. With the dawn, the smaller fowl in the area had started their morning chirping, searching for their morsels. Samwell spotted some deer walking across the plains up ahead and thought about mentioning it, but just before he did so the buck froze sensing their approach. Its head turned slightly and then it sprang off into a brilliant run, the others interrupting their scavenging and following quickly behind. Samwell smiled. He loved this place.

Samwell knew the general direction of the Blackstone but not the exact location. He hoped his sense of direction wasn’t too far off. Samwell continued to spot the occasional wildlife during the beginning of the trip, small flocks of songbirds or geese crossing the sky above them, hares and deer skipping through the grasses below. Then Samwell realized something. His sightings were becoming fewer and fewer until there was nothing there at all.

They were getting close.

Around two hours after leaving the fort the team saw the Blackstone jutting from the earth. The team saw nothing except the obelisk, a single thin piece of star stone standing seven feet tall, wider at its base and tapering towards the top like a blade. It was as if some massive beast stabbed the earth from beneath before discarding it as a reminder to those above of what lurks beneath.

With the stone in sight, Redwing and Sharpclaw (the roc Asa and Galon rode) wheeled almost simultaneously as if they could go no further. They resisted all attempts to correct their courses and Samwell was forced to settle them down a short distance away. They sensed something awry. Samwell was embarrassed. He didn’t remember the last time Redwing had not taken his instruction, but he was clearly disconcerted and would not continue closer.

From their landing site the team approached the obelisk on foot. Approaching with caution, they all began to feel the same uneasiness which afflicted the rocs even though there was nothing visible threatening them. Then they saw that even the earth rebelled. All the grass surrounding the stone grew dark and sickly, bending away from the stone. It couldn’t help its location, but it knew it didn’t want to grow there.

Samwell observed that the bottom of the obelisk and the area surrounding it was covered with moss of nightshade. Galon stepped forward and kicked some of it away. At the disturbing of the moss a spike of unease spread over the group as if a wave of evil was released from the stone itself. Samwell shuddered and momentarily wanted to flee, but held firm. Galon seemed to start but then also stood still. Asa and Caroline seemed unaffected. Quarion bolted. Natasha quickly realized what was happening, flew after him, and restrained him. Asa and Caroline approached Quarion, calmed him and removed his fear. “Stay close to me,” Asa reminded him, and all of them, really.

Calm though still unsettled, Quarion was the first to notice that under the moss ancient symbols had been carved into the stone. He started to say something and then stopped.

“What is it Quarion?” Galon said. He saw Quarion looking down at the stone, looked and noticed the writing. “Do you recognize these?”

“Of course I do,” he said and paused as if that were answer enough. He was trying to be brave and Samwell thought he was feeling slightly embarrassed at having run earlier. But Samwell knew it was magic which had caused the fear; he didn’t think any less of Quarion for it.

Galon growled when he realized Quarion wasn’t going to say anything else. “Well?”

“Oh, yes, I forgot you weren’t there that time with the balor. They are the same symbols we found on the fount of Ashtur in Himmelveil. It’s the sign of Stefin.”

Caroline tensed at the mention of the balor. Samwell didn’t know why and no one bothered to explain, but there was most certainly a story there. He hoped to hear it someday.

Still growling a little at Quarion’s impertinence, Galon cleared off the rest of the moss around the stone. More text was revealed. He looked at Quarion who began to read it aloud, like a poem.

“Keep me with you to survive
In fields of death few keep alive
I am like a tailor knife
Deadly ‘nough to end a life,” he finished.

“A riddle?” Galon said.

“Seems so,” Asa said. “Any thoughts?” Samwell stayed quiet. If they needed his help, they’d ask.

“What’s that?” Caroline asked, pointing towards the base of the obelisk. “Is that a gap in the stone?”

All eyes followed where she pointed. She was right. There was a slot beneath the obelisk about three inches long and half an inch wide. Without hesitating, Galon reached into his bag and pulled out a mundane sword and slid it right into the slot. A low rumble of stone upon stone greeted the insertion and the small slot widened into a hidden passage. There was a hiss of escaping air, stale and dead and cold. They saw the beginnings of a spiral staircase leading underneath the obelisk.

Everyone exchanged a glance. The trail led underground. “Let’s go,” Galon said and started down.

“I’ll go dismiss the rocs,” Samwell said to no one in particular, though Asa nodded in response. Samwell jogged back to where the rocs were grazing and instructed them to return to Fort Birchwood. They were trained well and Samwell trusted them to find their way home. It was clear the team didn’t need them where they were going.

Asa followed Galon down the stairs, followed closely by Quarion and Caroline and Natasha. Samwell caught up after jogging back to the rest of them and started down. The chill deepened at each step especially after the sliver of light from the morning sun faded into the blackness below. Samwell found the others waiting on a platform at the bottom of the stairs. Asa had his sword drawn; it wasn’t because of a threat, but to illuminate the space as if they were outdoors at midday. Unfortunately it didn’t end the oppressive chill Samwell felt, just gave him a little comfort.

The platform was small and closed off. The walls were formed from stone. From its quality and seamlessness, it sure seemed dwarven. This was confirmed when they discovered more text carved across the top of the walls. Samwell didn’t recognize it, but thought it was dwarven, too.

“It’s a prayer,” Quarion chimed in. “Read it and blow the horn three times.”

“I see the horn here,” said Galon, pointing towards the far wall.

“Are you going to read it or not?” Caroline asked, looking at Quarion.

“Of course,” he said and read it aloud. When he finished he looked proud; Galon knew it was over. He blew on the horn. Upon the first blow there was no sound but air moving through a metal tube. Then there was a grinding of chains and gears, and a portcullis no one had noticed lowered itself slightly out of one of the walls, opening towards another passage. There was another hiss of escaping air, rotten and sick and chilled. Galon quickly blew the horn two more times. After the third blow the portcullis was lowered completely and there was now a bridge into the next room.

It was a smaller room than the last one, like an antechamber to something larger. Scraps of metal and cloth lay on the floor. Galon began to cross the bridge.

“Wait,” said Quarion, casually and without much urgency. Yet Galon froze with one foot in midair. He stepped backwards towards the others. “There’s an illusion here.”

“Can you dismiss it?” Caroline asked.

“Not sure. Let me look a little closer. Perhaps it’s only hiding a trap we can disable.”

Galon and Caroline stepped close to the entrance and looked around for a trap but couldn’t spot anything. When Quarion wasn’t forthcoming, Galon again took a reserve sword and waved it inside the room and pressed it against the floor, but nothing happened. Perhaps if there was a trap it hadn’t been restocked and was empty.

Galon stepped into the room and crossed it without incident. “Seems safe,” he said. The rest of the team safely followed him through and proceeded down another set of stairs.

It grew colder still as they descended into the depths of the chamber. It should have been dark here too, but it wasn’t and not because of Asa’s sword. It was true that he was illuminating their way, but there was an eerie glow coming from below. Samwell wasn’t certain if that was what was also making it colder, but it was not pleasant. The air was getting thicker, too. It was oppressive both physically and spiritually. Samwell shuddered, glad he was in the back and hopeful the others didn’t see him shiver. Outside of Quarion’s bolt up at the top no one showed any signs of fear, or doubt.

The stairs emptied into a square room with three archways leading left, right, and straight ahead. A low moan reached their hearing, emanating from the right. Galon jogged up to the right archway and stopped, peeking around the corner and jerking back.

“There’s a woman in white, older. She flickered.”

“Ghosts,” Quarion and Caroline both said simultaneously. Quarion seemed excited, Caroline not so much.

“Did she seem threatening?” Asa asked.

Galon shook his head. “I don’t think she’s aware we’re here.”

“Let’s keep it that way,” Caroline said.


“Let’s start here,” Asa said motioning to the left.

Through the left archway they saw a decrepit barracks with rotted bed frames and tatters of mattresses and cotton, black with muck and grime. Beyond the barracks was an open area where the wall had given way revealing a natural cavern. A blue light flickered near a pool of water.

Upon closer inspection it was in the shape of a man wearing a uniform.

“What do you think, Caroline?” Galon asked. “Is that Blackwatch? It doesn’t look quite right.”

“Yes it is, though, older. It’s not what they’re wearing now, but maybe from sometime within the last hundred years?”

“Body,” the apparition hissed and pointed towards the water. Continuing the investigation as if he wanted it over as soon as possible, Galon didn’t wait for answers but followed the pointing finger towards the pool and jumped in.

Immediately the apparition faded and another being appeared directly in front of Asa, pale and undead with blue eyes and icy hair. Tongues of black flame rested in its raised hand. Surprising Asa, it bit down into his outstretched arm. He yelled at the pain of the cold fire as it burned into his flesh.

It was a wight. Samwell had never seen one before, but had heard tell of them haunting burial sites and cairns and the sort. Regardless of its original intent, this place was clearly now a tomb.

Seeing Asa attacked, everyone responded immediately. Quarion released a fireball engulfing the ghoul just before Caroline charged up cutting the wight with her sword. Natasha quickly grabbed two arrows out of her quiver and released them simultaneously into the wight, piercing it deep while Samwell released a bolt into its leg.

Samwell was almost startled when Natasha’s arrows flew past him. She was swift and proficient, a silent shooter, single-minded. Samwell couldn’t remember her saying anything as they made their way into the underground chamber, but here she was dealing death with a whoosh.

Asa then shook off the bite, extinguishing the wight’s cold black flames, and in a single motion cleaved down with his sword slicing it deep. It groaned in agony and fury.

A second wight then appeared drifting out over the pool. As soon as it brushed the top of the water, the surface began to freeze. Heedless, Galon continued his dive to the bottom of the pool. Peering through the murky dark Galon spied two bodies resting on the bottom. He grabbed onto them both and kicked back towards the surface before noticing the icy surface, hardening above him. He had to hurry.

Suffering from the furious onslaught of the heroes, the first spectre lashed out biting at Caroline and clawing at Asa. The bite found purchase on Caroline’s shoulder, similar black flames bursting from the wound. Quarion reached out his hand and threw another fireball at the ghouls. Samwell watched as the first one disintegrated into wisps of white smoke.

The second remained standing upon the water, the water continuing to freeze above the rising Galon. It roared a blast of cold wind shaking the intruders. Caroline dropped to one knee as the black flames burned and weakened her. With the nearby threat eliminated, she took a moment to heal herself, quenching the flames and regaining her strength. Natasha then littered the remaining wight with her arrows and it too was destroyed into mist. At its destruction the freezing ice broke up and melted allowing Galon to surface. He crawled out onto the cold ground pulling the rescued bodies behind him.

Like the ghost, which now reappeared, the two bodies each wore the older Blackwatch uniforms. Galon searched them gently, respecting their sacrifice.

“I … am … Verner … Dent,” the ghost said.

Asa was thoughtful for a moment. “I believe Verner Dent was one of the names in the paperwork the Empress provided me.”

Looking at the ghost, Galon asked it, “Do you know the other?”

“No,” it whispered. “No… perhaps, tis…” but it drifted off and disappeared.

Asa pulled out the paperwork and scanned it. “Verner Dent, yes. And Tiziano Fancio was another of the names. Do you think that’s what Verner was starting to say?”

“Perhaps,” Galon said. “What are the other names on the list?”

“Verner and Tiziano were two of the agents believed killed along with Cyril Portanova, Masahide Uyehara, and Edvard Nehls. Considered missing are Shaahir Onut, Ianthe Nardozzi, Kisa Sano and,” he paused before finishing, “Stephen Murica.”

“Perhaps we can at least give them peace,” Galon said.

“Yes. At the very least we should make the attempt.”

The companions agreed. It seemed the right thing to do. Then they moved on.

That was the first time Samwell got to see the heroes in action. He was certain it was a pitiful skirmish compared to what they were used to, but Samwell was glad to have seen it and even more glad to have been a part of it. His contribution was knowingly limited, but he hoped he could at least contribute with wisdom and courage when facing whatever else lay ahead.

Working their way back out, they passed the place where part of the floor had fallen through revealing a pit containing a body, partially covered by a pile of rubble. They stopped to investigate. Perhaps this was another Blackwatch. Looking closely, the corpse’s skull was jarred, shifting slightly. A ghostly form appeared overlaying the corpse saying “Pass my sword on to my son, Cyril Portonova.” The lower half of the corpse was buried under the rubble. Everyone lent a hand and they had soon uncovered the lower end of the body. There was an ordinary, unassuming scabbard holding a marked longsword. Galon removed it from the corpse and stowed it in his bag. The ghost said “Thank you” and dissipated.

Samwell was proud to be with them. This was good work they were doing. Samwell didn’t believe just anyone would take the time they were taking and respect the dead the way they were. It was honorable. The stories he’d read hinted at this but more often than not focused on the power and the might leaving the honor for between the lines.

The third Blackwatch was dismissed in peace.

Tracing their steps back to the entrance they found a storage room just off the rotten barracks. It was fairly empty, with brittle and crumbling shreds and tatters of rags. Unsettlingly, they discovered scratch marks on the inside of the storage room door around three to four feet off the floor.

The team exited the storage room through another access door and they ended up entering the room they would have accessed had they walked through the center archway. An old bed lay in the center of the room, or at least the remains thereof. There was an assortment of bones lying in the bed, but they didn’t appear to be a skeleton, but rather arranged haphazardly. Perhaps they were the remnants of discarded meals.

There was nothing else of note within the room, not even any bodies. At least there was that. Samwell wondered how many more they would find.

There were a couple exits from the chamber: doors to the left and straight ahead (from the entrance to the storage room) and some more stairs, descending deeper under the earth.

At the bottom of the stairs a hallway led to the left and the right. Looking around they saw an antechamber to the left; two sarcophagi were visible in the room beyond that. To the right was what appeared to be the beginnings of a stone labyrinth, its entrance flanked – or guarded – by two broken statues.

The team decided to check out the crypt first before tackling the maze. The crypt was bleak. It was disheartening to see the remnants of so much death; at least here it was recognized or honored, or it was supposed to be anyway. Moving through the antechamber the crypt opened up and was much larger than first realized. There were four sarcophagi to the right and six to the left. The crypt was “T” shaped at the far end with altars on each side and set of double doors at the intersection.

On the floor before the door was another corpse dressed in the uniform of the Blackwatch. Samwell caught a chill. As Galon approached, it came alive startling the group as it groaned and clawed its way across the stone floor. It stretched out its fleshless hand and began scratching at the doors.

Quarion said “I got this,” and motioned his hand as if knocking. A burst of green and black mist erupted out of the keyhole of the door in a wave of negative energy, troubling them all with dark thoughts and pain.

Even so, Caroline laughed a little, saying “I guess not.”

“I still got it,” Quarion rebuffed, preening a little.

“Just like the balor,” she muttered, though it was just loud enough for him to hear it.

“No, I do,” said Galon. He walked up, pulled a crowbar from his bag, and pried the door open. Behind the doors was another tomb, highly ornate and decorated. A sculpture of a shrouded dwarf was centrally located in the small room, holding an actual mithral dagger as if guarding the space. Not satisfied with clawing at the door the corpse pressed forward. It reached up and without checking for traps it pulled the dagger from the statue. It then held it to its chest as if repeating an oath and crumbled to dust, leaving the dagger behind.

A fourth Blackwatch was granted rest.

Investigating the dagger, Quarion learned that it was demon bane. The word mithralis was inscribed upon it; Quarion believed that was the name of the founder of the current ruling clan of the dwarves.

“I’ll keep this for now,” Galon said, “and we’ll make sure it gets to the dwarves.”

As Galon pocketed the dagger, Samwell watched as Quarion turned, walked past Caroline, clapped her on the shoulder, and she disappeared.

“What the hell, Quarion!”

“What have you done!?”

“Just a little plane shift,” he said, smiling, pleased with himself.

“Where did you send her, Q-ball,” Galon growled.

“Not sure, to be honest. Maybe the Celestial plane? I was thinking about that one.”

“Can she get back? Is she capable?”

“No idea. I can’t do any of that stuff.”

Quarion just shrugged.

“Can we find her?”

“She’ll be fine,” Quarion said and began walking out of the crypt towards the maze.

At that moment, Caroline appeared again in the crypt, haggard and furious. She glanced around and spotting Quarion, stormed after him. Asa stepped up to restrain her with a hand on her upper arm as she moved past him.

“Not now, Caroline.”

“That–,” she growled.

“Not now, Caroline,” Asa repeated, quietly but sternly. “We’ll deal with him once we get out of here.” She restrained herself. “Now, are you okay?”

She nodded, but didn’t look at Asa. She looked only at Quarion. She was responding to Asa, but it seemed as if she was truly giving Quarion a message, maybe: You’ll get yours. Quarion, all the while, continued to act smug and self-satisfied, though there was glint of fear behind his eyes, that impending sense that he had gone too far this time. It seemed he wished to shock everyone with his whimsy, but he certainly didn’t want a fight. Samwell could tell that much. But it didn’t instill a lot of confidence in his teamwork. That kind of behavior would’ve gotten Samwell kicked right out of the marshals. Samwell had watched during the exchange as Asa and Galon and Natasha got worried, then relieved, and now they were angry, too. But the others deferred to Asa’s direction and were willing to put aside their anger. At least for now.

There was a job to do.

After a moment of uncomfortable silence and heavy glares, Quarion walked off, saying, “To the maze, then?”

Samwell breathed. It seemed like they all did for the first time in minutes. Perhaps they had seen him do this kind of thing before, but clearly they were not amused. Yet they still followed.

The labyrinth was formed entirely of stone, its shaped walls reaching the ceiling. There was no moving around it or above it, only through it.

“Anyone good at not getting lost?” Galon asked looking around. “Besides me, anyway?”

“I’ve got a decent sense of direction,” Caroline said, glancing sideways at Quarion.

“I can hold my own,” Samwell said. It was the first time he had directly inserted himself into their conversation. He said it assertively but he tried to not sound cocky.

“Well, lead the way,” Asa said waving them all forward. “I’m no help at all in there.”

They moved around the maze making lefts and rights and continuing straight ahead. They changed direction a number of times and doubled back more than once. It seemed they even mistakenly went over the same ground at least twice before realizing it. It was difficult to proceed. The stonework was perfectly crafted. There were no seams or cracks or pieces mortared together. It seemed completely carved out of a single block of stone, expertly done. Samwell understood then, if all the dwarven statues and writings hadn’t made it obvious, this was a space created by the dwarves. And really, he shouldn’t have expected any different. Working underground was their bailiwick.

It took some time, they avoided a couple minor traps, but ultimately made it through, working together. Samwell was pleased that when asked, he gave his opinion and he was heard. Galon and Caroline treated him as an equal. Asa and Natasha deferred to their guidance. Quarion was along for the ride. Samwell figured he could have found his way magically if need be. Did he consider this kind of tracking beneath him?

And then the maze was over. There was nothing fancy waiting at the end, no fanfare or celebration, just a large, vaulted door, shut and locked. Quarion’s magic told them it was guarded, but he was unable to open it. He learned a little from the last one, then. He didn’t try without thinking.

There were some dwarven symbols in the doors, though. And there again was the name mithralis. Beneath the name, in the middle of the door was a small slot. Thinking about the entrance from up above, Galon muttered, “The dagger.” He pulled out the mithral dagger they found in the previous tomb and slid it into the slot in the door. It unlocked and the team was through the door.

The first thing they noticed was a gigantic, twelve-foot statue of a dwarf, armored and kingly, wielding an ax and caught in mid swing. And then more startlingly they noticed they weren’t alone. In the room with them were two living, breathing humans. Swords were drawn.

But then the team caught themselves and they relaxed; the man and woman were wearing the uniforms of the Blackwatch. The man was of average height, broad shouldered and blond, perhaps in his forties. The woman was slender, had long black hair, framing a pale face accented by high cheekbones.

They did not relent. They kept their arms raised, threatening them to proceed no further.

“We are friends,” Asa said. “We are friends of the Blackwatch and Kyn Wrath.”

Samwell saw them tense upon hearing that name.

“Knowing that name proves nothing,” the man said.

“No, of course not,” Asa continued, his hands raised, outstretched and imploring them he meant no harm. “I am Asa Murica, Grand Imperial Knight Marshal of Himmelveil. This is Galon, the Wolf of the Empire. Captain Caroline Hala here,” he said, motioning towards her, “is the Grand Imperial Knight Warden.”

“He wears the armor of the wolf,” the woman said quietly to the man. He nodded but stayed silent.

“This is Quarion Imalcrin, Imperial Magister and Arch-Mage of Himmelveil, and my fellow companion, Natasha. This is our guide, Samwell, a ranger from Fort Birchwood.”

“We came across a few Blackwatch soldiers on our way down here,” Caroline said.

“Alive?” the man said, startled, a look of concern spreading over his face.

“No, no. No. I’m so sorry. Just their remains,” she said.

“And we were able to give their uneasy spirits final rest,” Galon said. “Verner Dent and Cyril Portanova, we are certain we aided, and Tiziano perhaps. And then a fourth who’s name we did not learn.”

“Those were our friends,” the man said sadly. It was then the reality struck the heroes. These were two more of the Blackwatch from the original mission around thirty years prior. A couple of them shared a quick glance. “I am Stephen,” he said looking briefly and cautiously at Asa. “And this is Kisa.”

Samwell looked at Asa, but his expression was cold. There was sympathy in his eyes, but he didn’t react with any joy or amazement. He must know this was likely his father. Yet Samwell couldn’t understand how he didn’t react at all. Samwell had to maintain his composure. From the story told back at the fort, this was the man thought dead and now found alive! He wanted a happy reunion for Asa, but it seemed that Asa was a man of purpose – just like Stephen, it seemed – and there would be time enough for such happy things when this adventure was over.

“How are you still alive?” Quarion asked.

“It is as if we only just shut the door,” Kisa said. “We were preserved by magic to be awakened if ever the door was to be opened, to guard against anyone reaching what lies beyond. What is the year?”

“Twenty thirteen,” Caroline said quietly, awestruck.

“Almost thirty years,” Kisa whispered, looking at Stephen.

“You didn’t expect to find us,” Stephen said. “What are you doing here?”

“We did expect to, in a way,” Asa told him. “We are here to investigate your disappearance. The Empress provided me with documents regarding you,” he paused and stopped himself before quickly continuing, “regarding your mission here. To find you alive, that is what is unexpected.”

“The Empress?” Again Kisa and Stephen shared a glance. “What of the Emperor?”

“He passed five years ago,” Galon said. “His daughter Issobelle was crowned as heir.”

“Daughter,” Kisa said with a little wonder. They never knew the Emperor had a daughter.

All were lost in thought for a moment and the room went silent. Quarion stepped into the silence, saying “You said you’re guarding ‘what lies beyond’? Of what do you speak?”

Stephen pointed to a doorway at the back of the vault. “The stairs beyond that door descend to an evil space, full of necromancy and darkness. As much as we are here to protect against anyone coming in, we guard against anything getting out.”

Silence again. Samwell felt a chill pass over him. He wondered if the others did too. He suspected they weren’t going to stop here but would follow this through to the end. Whatever end waited below. He didn’t think he wanted to go.

He was right. The team readied themselves and drew their weapons and approached the stairway to see what darkness awaited them. As scared as he was, Samwell prepared himself and followed. It was what Asa would do, after all.

They ran down the stairs and into the room. Crossing the boundary, a wave of negative energy crashed over them, restraining their rush. They pulled up short. A massive crag, a seemingly bottomless pit scarred the middle of the room. Across the span were four disgusting creatures. Two knights as if slain but raised from death were facing two large double doors along the far wall. They were paying attention to a symbol carved into the door and it looked as if they were attempting to scratch it out. It was the symbol of Stefin. A third being with gray skin, stretched tight across his bones stood beside them guiding their pursuit. Its rictus of sharp teeth seemed to smile as it turned its head to observe the intruders. The fourth beast was an undead female whose body parts appeared pieced together like a patchwork quilt.

She did not wait to dialogue but attacked immediately. The creature, whatever she was, turned and growled, snarling at the intruders, and then charged, sprinting with unholy speed and leaping with evil grace over the twenty-foot crevice focusing her fury upon Stephen, lashing out and clawing at him. Seeing the focus of the turned knights, Quarion instantly created a wall of force between them and the doors. With that in place, they wouldn’t be able to destroy the symbol of Stefin, at least for a while.

It was obvious to everyone who cared to look that Asa only had eyes for the gray-skinned man. There was heat in his stare and for the first time, Samwell thought he saw how the dichotomy of Asa revealed itself. He was passionate to destroy evil and filled with a holy fire to do so. But he was stuck. He took a half step before halting, glancing at the massive gap which lay between them. So Samwell acted. With pure instinct and a sense of duty, Samwell spread the hawkish wings he wore upon his back and flew. He grabbed Asa and carried him across the span and deposited him in front of the foul creature. Up close, Samwell saw that the man wore priestly garments and the crest of the Order of the Black Talon. Could this be Elir De Monde? Dark and twisted and unrecognizable after being trapped by darkness for thirty years, if it was Elir he was no longer the man he once was.

Galon saw them go and followed, leaping across and charging the dark priest. He struck him but the distraction gave Asa a chance to strike. Perhaps still unsettled from unexpectedly being picked up and flown, he missed his strike, his sword flashing past Elir but finding no purchase. Elir called out to his evil god and a burst of negative energy blasted out staggering the heroes again. Responding with fury, Asa called out to the Nameless One who sent his own burst of divine smiting energy into Asa.

Stephen responded to the mismatched woman by slicing her arm as two arrows impaled her shoulder. Natasha had entered the fracas. Caroline then stabbed at the ghoul, piercing her under her ribs. Screaming with pain at the onslaught, she clawed back at Caroline and Stephen.

Meanwhile, Kisa attempted to follow Galon across the gap, but she misjudged the distance. She reached out towards the far edge but fell short and with a yell departed from sight and dropped into the abyss. Quarion saw her plight and leapt to respond, taking flight and racing down into the abyss behind her. His quick decision saved her life. He grabbed her, flew her back to the surface and dropped her on the far side.

Samwell continued the fight against Elir but wasn’t able to land a blow against the elusive thing. He impatiently pulled out his sword, staggering off balance in his hurried approach. He worried Asa would be hard on him for his failure. His lips tightened into a frustrated scowl.

At least Galon didn’t fail. He struck true again, slicing Elir critically and giving Asa an opening to strike as well, crushing him under the smiting power of god. In his continuing fury, Elir called the knights over to defend him. One charged Asa but couldn’t knock him back and away from Elir. He held his footing and leaping back against the push, brought down his sword upon the evil priest, striking him down with a yell of righteous anger.

The second knight attacked Quarion as he released Kisa to safe ground. Seeing this, Kisa jumped to her feet and defended him against its mad fury.

On the other side of the gap Stephen and Natasha continued to fight the ragbag, striking her but unable to finish her. Caroline stepped up to counter her attack and pierced her again, deeply, and she crumbled to the ground with a dusty and groaning rattle. Not settling with the kill shot, she flew across the gap and joined the fight against the knight attacking the mage.

Quarion, startled and upset at being attacked attempted to disintegrate the knight, but failed to finish it off. Stephen wasn’t content to remain away from the fight and took his own leap across the chasm, just reaching the far side, catching hold and scrabbling up to the surface. With all the heroes on the far side (except Natasha) the fight took a frenzied turn as the whirlwind of magic and blades and arrows struck out at the two knights, surrounding them and ultimately taking them down.

With a moment to breathe, Samwell was awestruck. The utter power displayed by Asa and his companions was immense. They were quick, precise, and deadly. Maybe all those stories were true. Samwell was excited to have seen them in action, and not only to have seen them fight, but to fight right alongside them. The beginnings of a smile crept around the corners of his mouth.

Weirdly, Samwell thought he saw Asa, Galon, Natasha, and Caroline disappear for a split second before returning in the same place. He cocked his head like a confused dog but chalked it up to the passion of the fight, though he heard Caroline mutter the word “Robin” and shake her head. He wondered what that meant.

A pounding reverberated around the space, bringing them all back to their circumstance. Quarion dismissed the wall of force so they could approach and see the doors and investigate the symbol of Stefin. Was that knocking or ramming? Samwell shuddered when it thundered a second time.

“What is that?” he said, looking to Asa.

Everyone looked around, but no one seemed certain.

“It looked like those knights were attempting to destroy that symbol. Is that keeping those doors closed?”

“Yes,” Quarion replied, confidently, though his eyes shifted between Asa and Galon. “This appears to be a gateway like the one I destroyed in Himmelveil. That’s a balor trying to get out.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Stephen chimed in. “But whatever it is needs to be restrained there and not released into our world. That’s what the symbol was doing.”

“Will it hold?” Galon asked.

“No,” Kisa said. “It needs to be re-sealed, but we don’t know the ritual.”

“Is it a ritual of Stefin?” Galon asked, looking at Asa.

“Yes,” Kisa said. Stephen nodded in agreement.

“I have the Book of Stefin,” Asa said, almost reluctantly.

Kisa and Stephen stood silent, exchanged their own glance, open mouthed in wonder. Finally, Kisa said into the silence, “You just carry the Book of Stefin around with you?”

“I shouldn’t, I know. I just forget it’s in there,” he admitted awkwardly, casting his eyes to the ground and blushing a little. “I do dishonor to myself.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Galon said. “It’s good we have it. Right?” he asked, looking at Kisa.

“Yes,” she said. “It will contain the sealing ritual.”

“I’ll read it,” Quarion said, reaching out his hand towards Asa, ready to receive the ancient tome.

“I ought to,” Kisa said.

Asa reached into his bag and pulled out the book. It was covered with dark, aged leather, with intricate stitching and designs. One of which was the same as the symbol on the doors. Asa handled it carefully and respectfully and handed the book to Kisa.

She brushed her hand across the surface of the book, her fingers lingering on the symbol. She breathed deeply and opened the cover. The parchment rustled. Samwell could see, even from his distance, that there was old ink on the pages, colorful and artistic. Letters and characters Samwell couldn’t read; drawings of gestures and motions. The pages were wispy and dry and Samwell thought he heard the parchment cracking as she gingerly turned the pages until she found what she wanted.

“Here it is,” she whispered. “Gesture at the door a number three,” she began and raised her right hand holding up her first three fingers. She closed her eyes and sighed. “It requires three lives to re-seal the door. It’s blood magic.”

“I’ll do it.” Three voices chimed in immediately, nearly simultaneously. Samwell wasn’t surprised. It was Asa, Galon, and Stephen.

“Let me take a look at that,” Quarion said. Kisa looked at Asa. He noticed. “I won’t touch it,” he said, resignedly, his hands raised in peace. He walked to her and looked over her shoulder.

“It reads to me ‘the blood of three’ not ‘lives’,” he said. “And the door will be sealed for a thousand years. We need a stone bowl, stone pestle, stone mortar, blade, and the life blood of three. I’ll complete the chanting and then pour the bowl over the door. I’ve got all those things.” He looked up, smiling and satisfied and began to sort through his pack.

Samwell was nervous. He had never seen blood magic before and he knew enough not to play around with it. Some of the guys at the fort told stories about it as if they had seen it manifested in person. Samwell had always doubted those stories; just braggadocio over some ales. The typical talk of soldiers. He didn’t put much stock in them.

But this was going to happen. He stepped back to allow Quarion to perform the ritual, but kept his hands on his sword and crossbow in case they were needed.

Asa, Galon, and Stephen stepped up and reached out their hands towards the stone bowl, palms up. Galon’s left hand held a dagger, hilt out, to Quarion. Quickly, he took the knife and cut across the palms of the three men, precisely and not too deep. The blood flowed into the bowl for a few seconds.

“That’s enough,” Quarion said, and the three men withdrew their hands and wrapped a bandage around them. Quarion got on with it. He began the chant in an ancient tongue, or at least a dialect of a tongue Samwell didn’t recognize. He watched with fear as light within the room seemed to fade around the edges leaving only Quarion and the stone bowl illumined. The chanted ended. Quarion reached up and poured the blood over the doors and a wave of blessing crashed over them all. The symbol of Stefin was restored to wholeness; the scratches were repaired. The door was sealed.

No one spoke.

The reverberating pounding upon the door had ceased.

The group retraced their steps and cleared the remaining segments of the underground keep of the Black Reach. It was uneventful, for the most part. Kisa discovered a trap of poison daggers which she disarmed to enter a storeroom. Therein, Quarion discovered an illusion of a false wall and walked right through it into another room, older, with different stonework, more natural. It was a small space but filled with some magical weapons and gold.

The team stowed most of it. Seeing a bow, Asa picked it up and examined it, feeling its heft. It seemed sturdy and in good repair, even after all this time. He retrieved a quiver which lay beside it, turned, and handed them to Samwell with a nod.

Samwell motioned to himself as if to ask: For me? Asa nodded. “Thank you,” he said and took them. He tried to remain calm, but his blood raced. “He gave me treasure,” he thought. He was proud.

Back towards the entrance, the team encountered another fallen Blackwatch soldier, prone, stretching towards a table with tears in his shirt and a dagger protruding from his back. Black blood pooled under him, as if fresh.

Cautiously, Quarion walked near, but he didn’t react quickly enough as whatever inhabited the corpse whirled around, sat up, and clawed into Quarion ripping off his skin and putting it on over his own rotten flesh. Samwell retched. He had never seen anything so repulsive and he bolted from the room, following hard on Natasha’s heels.

Kisa responded quickly and stole Quarion’s skin back from the creature which then transformed into a large, troll-like beast. Frightened, Quarion’s skinless frame of bloody muscle, sinew, and bone ran away, too. It was unsettling to see those wide eyes and crazed smile take off across the room. With the focused assault, however, the beast didn’t last long.

The body which had been taken over by that skin-stealing creature couldn’t be identified. Too much damage from time or evil prevented it. They counted six more Blackwatch bodies in the room. Could they all be traps?

“Seal the room and leave them in peace,” Stephen said.

Everyone agreed. No need to take the risk of disturbing any others. The party retreated back towards the entrance and Asa used a magic green stone to stone-shape the entrance, marking it as a tomb of the Blackwatch. Near the entrance, they found Quarion wandering, awkward and skinless. Despite the earlier difficulty between them, Caroline comforted him and then used a powerful magic of her own to regenerate his skin and heal him fully. Samwell didn’t hear him say anything, but there were thanks in his eyes.

Wandering through the remaining rooms, they discovered only one more ghost of a Blackwatch wandering around the upstairs. Kisa recognized her as Ianthe Nardozzi. It seemed she only wished to find a way out of the old dwarven keep. Kisa instructed her to follow them and the team climbed the steps and exited the dungeon into darkness. Ianthe’s ghost wandered into a beam of moonlight and faded away.

The final Blackwatch soldier was granted peace.

They gathered around the entrance and looked on in silence. Galon removed the sword he had inserted nearly eighteen hours earlier and the star stone door creaked closed beneath the obelisk.

Asa knelt and placed a hand upon the earth in front of the stone. He prayed. As he did so, Samwell felt the darkness and death which oppressed the entirety of the Black Reach up to and including the grass relent and dissipate. The ground was now hallowed. Consecrated with the power of the Nameless One, it was no longer a place of evil. Demonic darkness was sealed below and the revered dead left behind were now honored and at peace.

The team flew back to Fort Birchwood, the flighted assisting or carrying those unable. They oddly returned from an uninhabited tomb with two more soldiers than they departed with, and all were haggard, dirty, and exhausted.

It had been decided that to avoid frightening the watch, they would land outside the fort and walk the last few yards. Yes, they would have to open the gates, but it was better than landing in the courtyard and prompting chaos. Yet the second watch was still startled at their approach.

“Halt!” one cried, not terribly firmly.

“Who is that, Private Trémaux?” Samwell shouted, craning his neck to see who called out from upon the ramparts. He smiled to himself. He enjoyed knowing his men, especially the new ones. And they were the ones most often suffering through the night shift on the gates.

Enzo and Pascal shared a quick glance.

“Gafferson?” Pascal whispered.

Enzo nodded. “I think so.”

“Colonel Gafferson?” he called down.

“Yes, Enzo,” Samwell said. “And tell Private Boutin to come down and open up the gates.“

“Sir! Yes, sir!” Enzo said. He turned to tell his friend, but Pascal was already gone. He didn’t wait, but laid down his halberd and climbed down the ladder in haste. He opened the gates and allowed Samwell and the Heroes of Himmelveil passage into Fort Birchwood.

Samwell stood by the gates as the rest filed past. “Pascal, go and fetch Quartermaster Lalande. We need quarters prepared for our guests.” Pascal stood motionless, in awe at the heroes, the worth of their gear, and the power contained within them. “Now, Pascal.” Samwell nudged him, amused. Pascal ran off.

It hadn’t been that long since Samwell had felt his own awe in their presence. After the last day’s adventure, though, he nearly felt like he belonged with them. It was amazing how a little bloodshed and danger was enough to bring people together and forge long-lasting bonds. Samwell dreamed that this would be the first of many times he would fight with these heroes.

After Asa walked through the gates, last in line, Samwell took care to shut and bar the gates. The fort was secure. The heroes were home.

Quartermaster Lalande found bunks for the heroes, though Natasha and Caroline set up a tent in the courtyard for themselves. They invited Kisa to join them in what they called the “girl’s tent” and she agreed. Samwell thought that odd – the fort had a separate chamber for the ladies if they had desired one – but one finds one’s comfort wherever one can.

Once they were all settled, Samwell returned home.

It was late. He opened the door slowly, trying not to wake Rosario. He sat in the wooden chair just inside the door. It creaked. He froze. He heard Rosario breathing deeply from the bedroom. It was a comfortable breath and he was grateful to hear it. He chuckled when he heard her emit a short snore.

Piece by piece, Samwell removed his leather armor, nearly as patiently and respectfully as he had put it on almost twenty four hours earlier. It would need to be cleaned. So would he. He stood and walked to where they kept their ewer, disrobing along the way. He poured water out over his hands and ran them over his face and through his hair. Blood and grime dripped down onto the floor. Samwell continued little by little until he was at least refreshed if not completely clean. As he stood up following one last rinsing of his face, he felt a soft cloth embrace his shoulders. He closed his eyes and purred.

“I’m glad you’re home,” Rosario said. She wiped him down with the cloth and dried his brown skin, tenderly and with care.

“Me, too. I’m sorry I woke you.”

“I’m glad I woke up. Are you hurt?”

“Nothing that will last,” he said, “but I’ll be sore tomorrow.” He turned and faced her and she continued toweling him off, getting closer. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” she said. Even in the darkness, Samwell felt the smile and heat in her words. He stirred. And then he yawned. They laughed together. “Oh, my tired man, let’s get you to bed,” she said.

“That sounds good,” Samwell said.

She took his hand and led him to the bedroom. They climbed in; Samwell put his head down and slept almost immediately. Rosario lay awake for a while watching him, counting his breaths, seeing if he dreamed. He didn’t. After a time, Rosario returned to sleep, happy to have her husband back beside her.

Samwell slept well and deep into the morning. They all did. Even the elves, who didn’t really need it, slept as if they had been awake and moving for forty-eight hours.

When Samwell woke, their apartment was empty. Rosario was out, performing her duties around the fort, Samwell guessed. He stepped out into the living area and saw that his armor and clothing had all been cleaned already and set out to dry. She was an angel, he thought, grateful he had found her.

Then he heard some activity out in the fort and dressed to see what was abuzz.

The heroes were running the gauntlet. The gauntlet was Fort Birchwood’s training course and there were Asa and Galon and Caroline running the course and the troops were gathered around to watch. Everything seemed to be at a standstill as they frog-crawled under brambles and jumped small hedges and pools and climbed makeshift walls. There was Rosario, watching them go and cheering them on with everyone else from the fort.
Samwell approached her and slid his arm around her waist. She blushed, but turned to him, smiled and kissed him.

“Morning,” she said.

“Morning. What’s all this?”

“The Wolf suggested they set training benchmarks for the men to aspire to.”

“That’s a good idea,” Samwell said, nodding, “though I hope the men realize how special these heroes are.”

“Oh, they do,” she said. “Look at them.”

And he did. He looked around and saw them smiling and laughing and pointing and gaping as these soldiers, the elite of the elite, saw fit to give these trainees a little hope and joy and wonder even in the aftermath of yesterday’s discoveries. To be emulated, indeed.

They all gathered once again in Captain Glass’ office, giving him a brief report on the visit to the Black Reach and everything they discovered. Samwell didn’t speak much. It was Asa’s story to tell. Cy looked at him in wonder a time or two, especially when Kisa and Stephen were introduced, telling Samwell at one point that he expected his full report on the excursion by week’s end. Inwardly, Samwell groaned. He hated writing reports. He would do it, of course, but Samwell knew Cy was preening a little in front of the others. It was just as likely that he would ask for Samwell’s take over an ale before he ever asked for the report.

At the end of the story, Asa stood. He shook the Captain’s hand, saying, “Thank you for your hospitality. You run a tight ship out here; I’m happy to have seen it in person.”

“You’re welcome,” Cy replied. “Please come any time.”

Asa turned to his companions before turning back to Cy. They all stood and readied themselves. “We should be going,” he said. Asa looked over at Samwell, standing behind Cy and acknowledged him with a nod and what seemed to be a look of respect.

They all joined hands, Quarion said some words, and in a blink they were gone. Samwell wondered if he would ever see Asa again.

“That was something,” Cy said.

“Yeah, it was.”

“Let’s go get these trainees back into form.”

“Absolutely.” Samwell clapped Cy on the shoulder. A little too familiarly, perhaps, but no one else was there to see it. Laughing, they opened the door and walked out of the office and called the men to order as if it were any other day.


“Come closer,” it whispered. The figure was shimmering, translucent. Everything around her was dark, but she glowed as if from within. Samwell stepped forward but didn’t get any nearer to her. “Come closer.” Her ess stretched and lingered as the word escaped her lips ending with an exhale rather than an actual er. He shivered. He didn’t know where he was, and he didn’t really want to be there, but he couldn’t bring himself to run away.

Wispy fingers beckoned him. He took another step but was still no closer to her. Something clanged behind him, echoing and distant. He thought he recognized the harsh melody, but he couldn’t grasp hold of it. He turned to look but saw only darkness.

“Samwell,” she whispered, closer this time. He jerked his eyes back towards the sound of his name. The apparition was upon him. “Samwell,” she grinned, hissing a little louder. Her arms reached out for him as she rushed up on him. She grabbed him by the shoulders saying “Samwell” one last time.

“Wake up.”

Samwell sat up in the bed, sweating, breathing hard. Rosario’s hand was on his shoulder, nudging him. He reached a hand up to his eyes as if brushing away the ghostly fingers. The bedroom was dark. A candle lit in the living area peeked dimly through the cracked door. It was still early. The sun was not yet up.

“Samwell,” Rosario groaned. She buried her head on his shoulder. She was crying.
The cobwebs of his dream scattered instantly as he threw off the blanket with his free hand and reached for the dagger he kept under the mattress. “What is it?”

“She’s dead,” she sobbed.

He expected something else. He didn’t know what he expected, exactly, but not that. “Dead? Who’s dead?”

Rosario uttered, “The Empress,” and embraced her husband, sobbing.

Samwell was dumbfounded. The light from the candle flickered as if in response to the cold breath of the apparition, she calling him to come closer, but really only taunting him that even the most precious of lights are only fleeting and easily extinguished.

“Wha…” he tailed off. It was a short burst of breath, but it was all he could muster.

“I don’t know,” Rosario said. She knew what he was trying to say. She usually knew. He liked that about her. He didn’t have to waste words. The only problem this time was that there were none at all that he could possibly say.

It was then he heard the bells. They were discordant. Bells from both the fort and the temple competed with one another, each with their own message to spread.

The Empress is dead, it rang out. To arms, said the other.

The Empress is dead, it said again.

Prepare for war.

From the pen of the Wolf to the eyes of the Rose Part 1

For the eyes of the most direct heir of Himmel alone. 78th to wear the heavy crown of Empress or Emperor of the Empire of Himmel..

Response to War Council:

Dragons amassing on eastern front, visibly retreating from west and south. Osternein is feeling threatened. Rossinar suggested two teams, strike force and distraction team. The remaining Heroes of Himmelveil agreed to be a strike force to recover dragon orbs that Thanatotek apparently uses to control dragons. Talabods men are to be distractionary force. Did not like this, suggested that Magnus Elrik take the field as well to provide defensive support for army. I expect him to flee at the moment of actual conflict so that he can better wrest control of the empire from your grasp. Magnus said he thinks he can turn off Thanatoteks powers. I doubt this, or he would have seized control of the Empire by now. Did not say if he would take field.

I hope you get a chance to read this before we leave. Suggest caution around Rossinar, he sent us on a goose chase which may or may not prove useful, and one of the sections of the army most loyal to you on a suicide mission. Made no statements of deploying his own army currently located within the capitol. Please command Magnus Elrik to to take the field in the aid of Talabods men or it will be a complete slaughter, even with his aid I expect at least a 90% mortality rate. He’ll protect his and his own first, but so do we, so I will not judge him on that.

We are being sent by Oberron to meet the Watcher. Ser Caroline reacted negatively when I mentioned the Watcher aiding us in Asa’s recovery. Did not elaborate why. Suggest if information was meant to be classified someone tell me such in advance in the future. Did not see point in holding back information when the empire and arguably all life on our plane of existence is on the line. Natasha is an aetherial by the name of Helena. Stories from before the first empire say that Helena and Baldir were in a relationship. Could not confirm this relationship other than during the night before you were revealed to be heir that I saw them talking in the courtyard. Asa as well tried to slow down my talking with a hand gestures we practiced.. I tried to obfuscate my language from that point foward, but I am a bad liar to say the least, expected Oberron to see through it, and I believe he did when my best lie was “I am old”. Have not had chance to devise reason for secrecy from the Aetherials that govern the elves. Full disclosure In case you forgot I am married to one of Titania’s former hand-maidens, while her father may be mischievous at best (The Aetherial known as Robin, my personal friend) all other Aetherials other then Natasha/Helena have been honest to the point of cruelty in the past and Robin may be mischievous but is also bound by most the same laws of reality as mortals though he inherently seems aware of shortcuts. Perhaps that has bled on me, but whenever possible I am asking Vondarra to help me recover the distance and difference in my long life thanks to her stone. Assuming you speak celestial or are smart enough on your own to figure out, I am a continual remembering reincarnation of the the same man Galon who stood by Him himself our founder Himmel as well as his companions. If not, there it is.

Oberron is to provide teleportation to watcher via raven. I believe it is Thumin, while Umin will be providing distractionary taunting. Umin highly likely to die in this event if that slaver gnome is to be trusted as it would mean Thanatoteks powers far outweigh even Oberrons. Suggest tracking down gnome and interrogating him for information, suggest torture if necessary, but only if you have a mage on hand to discern if tortured answers are reliable information. Last Count is 4 stones in our hands, 1 stone, I’m assuming watching based in the watchers care. That leaves three known stones in Thanatoteks control. The thing that wore Asa’s face had shapechanging stone, I am assuming that is in his (Thanatotek) direct control. Caroline keeps the stone that creates and moves objects on herself. Vondarra has the stone that alters the mind, which has proven very useful in recovering my memories. Quarion wields the stone of temporary change. Magnus Elrik controls the stone of protection and removal. The Watcher has his stone, again assuming the watching based stone. The other two.stones of legends are the stone of the dead and death, as well as the stone of deception. We leave as soon as Oberron calls his raven.

Scribbled rapidly in an addendum: When we have a chance I suggest someone start teaching me the basics of magical understanding. If for no other reason but to give me a better understanding of what is going on in this time of war.

Suggest all active members of the party learn the hand signals you me and Asa developed. At the very least it will mean a command of your troops wont be yelling at me in congress without me knowing why.

Suggest keeping half or more of Ser Talabods strongest troops behind, they stand no chance against this supposed god, Thanatotek. But would make a stronger source of defense against a coup from within. Suggest Talabod not taking the field directly if possible. Use deception and magic to convey commands If we die on this mission you will lose Ser Carolines direct command and all templar troops still directly loyal to Asa . We have to my knowledge yet to fish out the traitor captain of the guard who may or may not be a draconic traitor. The Falcon I think may remain loyal to you, and he is a skilled combatant but at best you will be at an even footing against Rossinars men and Talabod and his men in our absence may yet make up the difference. Please, whenever you are far from me do your best to stay safe. It is expensive but we should craft rings thats protect you from harm and danger and projects acts of violenceonto myself. Not sure how well they will work, but something is better than nothing, I have already apologized to my wife if I die young in your service.

Ygritte's Letters part III
One last hurrah

I knew my new role would change things. I think I was unprepared for the amount that would change so quickly. I am not even crowned yet, and there are things that I have not considered.
I needed a break, and knew the Q and A were assigned a task that could very well be a death sentences. I don’t think either would ask for help. Q would consider it a sign of weakness, in his arrogance believing he could kill the dragon himself. A wouldn’t want to endanger his friends.
I was not wrong in my assumptions.
A seemed horrified when I announced my intent to journey with them. Q acted indifferent but seemed secretly pleased. I also convinced them to seek more help, and Samwell and his roc joined our party. We set out for Drakonis, Robin helping us with the portal, deciding to contact a few acquaintances to see if we could enlist their help, or at least give us any leads.
The guardians seemed willing to adventure with us, with a promise of splitting the horde. At least, they did until Q’s spell revealed that we would not be heading to the island of the gold dragons, but instead to Demonsea. Elentur wished us well, but pleaded with us not to go. Demonsea is where the mad titan’s castle is. One of them, anyway.
From what we learned from Elentur, the Gold Dragons should not have moved against us. They had separated themselves from Drakonis. And yet, one had killed our empress, and another had acted as envoy when we went to meet with the silent king. We began to suspect they were being controlled, by either mundane means like threat of death, or magical means. I thought of the orb I carry, and what I had seen. At the time, I thought the room containing the orbs was in the dragon vault we had rescued A from. But if the Mad Titan has them, it changes everything.
We decided we needed more fire power.
A talked to Baldir and N, both more than willing to accompany us with the prospect of killing dragons. Robin tried one more time to talk us out of going, and then we set off, teleporting above the scarred and molten landscape of Demonsea.
The castle was enormous. We were like ants crawling in through the arrow slits. It was guarded by gigantic creatures, with flaming manes and ape like faces. Stealth would be our friend here. Though we did not take time to prepare, Q still had some invisibility spells for our companions. We slipped in to the castle undetected.
Our first goal was to retrieve the colored orbs of dragon kind. I had seen through one in possession that several of the others were being kept in a vault with white stone walls. None of the rooms in the place matched what I had seen. Which meant the titan was keeping them somewhere else, and would still have the power to control those dragons.
We found the dungeons. The guards there were inattentive, playing cards. That, more than anything, convinced me that that titan wasn’t here.
We approached the cell that Q’s spell had indicated contained our dragon. I opened the food slot and we peered inside. There were dozens of gold dragons, of various sizes, all being held prisoner. Our options for invisibility were limited. I could disappear again at will, but Q did not have many of those spells left. A and I entered the cell alone.
When we asked for the one who wore A’s face, the dragon stepped forward willingly, ready to accept punishment for his crimes. He told us of mind control, and being forced to do the mad titan’s bidding. Even N was moved.
The rest of the dragons spoke of similar circumstances and coercion. We decided to free all of the dragons in this cell, as well as anything that might be in the other cells. The chaos could help us escape, and nothing deserved to be under the control of a mad man.
I unlocked the door, as well as the first few down the hall. Q took care of another. On the fourth door, I felt my tool slip, let go of it quickly and back flipped out of the lock. Just in time. A magic cage surrounded the door, with phantom blades stabbing at the air where I had been.
The guards were alerted, and my friends set off to stop them while I moved to open the last few doors.
The metallic dragons imprisoned within joined our fight, helping to take down their captors. Baldir was injured in the fight. I could see madness overtake his eyes.
The fight ended quickly. Baldir was the only one injured. When N went to tend to him, he struck out at her, wounding her arm. A was able to remove the madness. Baldir looked shaken.
The dragons agreed to help us return to the city, and each of the metallic groups would send an envoy. We might not be able to trust them while the titan has the orbs, but the gesture is solid. They took human shape, and we returned outside of the city, away from where Rossinar was camped.
Rossinar. He is a problem that will need to be addressed. Sooner, I fear, then later.
And now I ask you to return to the city. Join me at court. I could use someone I trust with your years of experience.


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