A/N: And here's the actual new chapter. Not too much to say about that I didn't on the recap. I do hope you enjoy it!
A Light Forgotten:
Chapter 15: Secrets and Stratagems.
Fairest Sybella, I often wonder why our love was fated not to flourish. For all the success life has gifted me, I can't help but dwell on the failings I've seen. I can't help but dwell on you. I can't help but wonder where I'd be had fate twisted me down a different path? Would I still have these reddened hands? Would I still know all that I do now?
I am not a kind man. I lack something very fundamental to most humans. For that, I doubt I would have been true to you. For that, I excel at the profession I was chosen for. For that, I have bested men who are known to be legends while my own name remains illusive. I am an assassin and I could probably rightly be called a monster.
My life is in a strange place at the moment. Random occurrence and coincidence have let me learn the true nature of God. I am in the most peculiar position. I, a humble pawn of my king, now understand things that perhaps shouldn't be known at all. I, a man who has lived his life knowing everything he needed to, now find myself completely at a loss as to what to do.
All the while I find myself at sea with pirates, the ship provided to me having been wrecked and my crew drowned. I am set to meet with a demon with a vendetta against man over delicate matters for my king. Meanwhile, back at home a talented favorite protege of mine has run afoul of my king. With everything around me turned on its head, my mind seems to go to you more often then before. I'm not entirely sure why, but maybe it's a sign. Having seen what I have, nothing would surprise me any more.
Hewett Proctor put down the ancient book, having read it from end to end. He stared blankly ahead. He was not an easy man to faze. He was a trained assassin. He was the best there was. He had killed more people with his hands than most people even knew. He'd certainly killed more than he'd claim to know.
Yet reading what he just had, he couldn't help but be stunned. He didn't know what to say. It all made sense. It was all so clear to him he was at once baffled at how no one had ever seen it before. At the same time, he pondered if he shouldn't burn that book and conceal that knowledge forever. Knowledge could be dangerous. This knowledge, this power, it was more than he wanted in his hands.
The assassin's thoughts couldn't be further from the mission he had been assigned. Arcelius Dargan had sent him to meet with the demon necromancer Casmire to recover some relics from his private collection which were thought to be needed for young Miss Medora's Project Revivify. To his king, this was vital. To Proctor, it hardly seemed to matter in that moment. It just seemed so small.
There wasn't much that would have shaken Proctor at that moment. No, he was lost in his spinning thoughts, unsure what he should do. When a massive cannon ball pounded loudly through the wall of his cabin, that proved enough to get him to stir. If barely. He stared at the damage blankly for a moment, not understanding it. When the sounds of more cannons firing nearby sounded, he became a little more alert.
He rushed out of the cabin quickly, stowing the book in a coat pocket, racing up onto the deck of the White Phoenix. The deck had become a battlefield. Pirates were engaged in sword play with one another all around as the thunder of cannons filled the air. Hewett looked toward the other ship which flew a crimson pirate flag. It hardly seemed real to him, but the White Phoenix was under siege.
"Mister Ethelwin!" a voice started, a voice called. It was the aged quartermaster, Orvelle, rushing toward him, armed with a rifle type relic. "You should stay below deck where its safer!"
The old man aimed and shot a two enemy pirates in quick succession before Hewett could reply. "Who are these men?" he asked, still standing at the doorway.
"Bloody Serpents. The worst sort of dog, but nothing the Temepest crew can't handle!" Orvelle replied as she took more shots.
"Is that so, old man?" a voice questioned. Hewett turned slightly to see an imposing, muscular bald man with a scar across his face equipped with at least five weapons visible on his person.
"Tandy, you scurvy dog!" Orvelle growled, raising his gun at the man. "You really think to make an enemy of the Temepests!"
Hewett remembered the name Tandy from the stories the young captain had told. He was surely out for revenge.
"You're pretty little captain ain't here to save your skin, old man," Tandy started with a deep laugh. "Without her, you Tempest fools are nothing!"
"Do you really want to test me on that?" asked Orvelle with a scowl, cocking his gun and firing it without warning.
A harpoon like weapon collided with the rifle just as it was to fire averting the course of its fire. The weapon was then whipped back into place at the tip of some bizarre modified relic. It was part of a pair, both of which were being held by a man with the dark skin of the Western Continent. Tandy appeared to Hewett much like a beast; raw power, reckless strength, all force. This man however, from how he carried himself, was clearly a true warrior.
"That wasn't necessary Zaki," Tandy bluffed. "This washed up old codger ain't goin' to seriously get the drop on me."
The warrior said nothing, and instead left immediately to rejoin the fray. After a few moments of watching the man kill, he had Hewett's respect. The Tempests were well trained, but he was making quick work of a lot of them. in battle prowess, this man was about on the same level as the Captain, though there was no indication that he possessed the mark.
"You see that, Orvelle! Zaki alone could rip this entire miserable crew apart without your Captain!" Tandy bragged. "Face it! The White Phoenix is mine!"
"I won't let you have it!" the old man shouted as he drew a dagger and rushed the captain. Tandy pulled a handgun and with a single bullet, pierced the aged sailor between the eyes. He let out a roar of laughter as the corpse hit the deck.
Hewett was a little amiss as to how to react. The Tempests were good, but the bear like captain with his voracity and the one called Zaki with his effortless skill tipped the scale in the Bloody Serpents favor. As powerful as he was, direct confrontation really wasn't his style. He wasn't entirely sure he could match Zaki in footwork either. He wasn't as young as he used to be. To make it even worse, the fierce captain was looking at him now.
"What're you looking at fancy boy?" the pirate asked mockingly. "Aren't you going to get in on the fight? Or is you too chicken?"
"I..." Hewett started, forcing his voice to become higher. "I'm not with them. I'm a Maytland man of business who found passage with them after my navy vessel shipwrecked. I'm abundantly wealthy. If you see me back to shore I will ensure you are rewarded with considerable riches!"
"Is that right?" Tandy laughed. "Well you sure as shit don't look or smell like no pirate." He laughed some more and then grabbed a man from his crew even bigger than he by the collar, pulling him out from the fight. "You there! Escort this man back to Red Victoria and throw him in the brig!"
"Aye, sir!" the huge, gorilla like pirate replied in a dim voice before grabbing Hewett by the waist and effortlessly lifting him from the ground.
As Tandy went to fight the massive man's opponents, Hewett was forcibly taken away. This would make things easy. He'd lie low in Tandy's prison for a bit, until this fight died down. Then he'd make his escape to the island to meet with Casmire while the pirates weren't looking. Pulling the wool over the eyes of some dim pirates hardly seemed like it would be much trouble.
The large man returned with Hewett to Tandy's ship by way of some ropes. His strength was impressive, but this was a simple, uncoordinated man. Nevertheless he took the assassin from one ship to the other likely more quickly than he could have managed the feat on his own. He then escorted Hewett below the Red Victoria's deck to a holding cell. Something about the cell surprised Hewett though. It wasn't empty.
No, there was a man in it dressed in the robes of a priest. With him was a woman with fiery red hair. Seeing them, especially the priest, had Hewett wondering if he shouldn't rethink his strategy. Smiling he made the one the fly decision to do things a little different.
"Darkness, I and you are one and you are one with all. With you and with me and with my enemy sear a bond in time between up that rends everything within to useless matter," Hewett said in whispers.
"Whatcha think ya mutterin' ya-" the giant pirate started to speak.
Hewett adjusted his glasses and then very suddenly cocked his head to the side, looking the giant man cleanly in the eyes. "Obliterate," was all he said.
Black fluid immediately began to gush from the massive man's nose, ears, mouth and eyes. He then fell dead to the ground. Hewett brushed off his shoulders as he moved toward the holding cell.
"What in the-?" the woman in the cells shouted in shock. "What did you just do? Who are you?"
"Never mind the details," Hewett said. "I'm here to free you." He put his hands on the prison bars and uttered another spell name. "Decay." The solid metal bars turned to some sort of black fluid and fell apart.
"What sort of terrible sorcery is that?" the priest questioned in awe.
"It's essentially the same spell. Or same principle at least," said Hewett. "The first I control by looking at things and works best on organic materials, in this case that lout's internal organs, while the second is by touch and works best on the inorganic."
"I've never seen magic that can do that," said the woman, still in shock.
"Then you've been stuck on the mundane," said Hewett, shaking his head. "But it's no matter. Let's depart."
"We appreciate the effort to free us, sir," said the priest. "But this... we do require some answers."
"I was going to wait out the fight before taking my time to escape, but seeing the two of you, it seemed this was a more fun solution," he said. "I don't like the captain of this ship very much, you see."
"I'm there with you on that," said the woman with a small laugh.
"The captain of the ship that this crew is attacking is much preferable and I happen to owe her a bit of a debt," Hewett said. "I think it would be fun for us to find her and get her to come back to her ship."
"I don't see the point. How does one pirate compare to another? Aren't they all the same?" the woman said with a short growl.
"We know that's not true, Leandra," said the priest. "I think we should listen..."
"Excellent. Your services in particular will be needed, as currently the other captain is in a den of the undead," Hewett said like it was nothing.
"Undead?" the woman and the priest started in near unison.
"Yes," said Hewett. He looked at the woman. "Now, you. Are you skilled?"
"I am a captain of the Maytland Magic Knights!" the woman shouted, clearly frustrated. Hewett was shocked at this bit of knowledge. His luck was quite great.
"Even better," he said. "Then it should be very easy." He lifted the large man's sword and handed it to the woman. "Come. Use that, but do try and avoid unnecessary fights with the pirates as we make our escape. We'll need to save our strength for the ruin."
The woman took the sword reluctantly and stood. "I don't think I like you very much," she said, shaking her head.
"I'm to fight undead...?" the priest muttered weakly. His face revealed youth and lack of conviction. He was a novice.
Hewett smiled. "Yes. But don't worry. Your light rips through their decayed flesh without effort. There's really no simpler thing for one of your trade."
"Who exactly are you?" the lady knight demanded furiously. "I won't fight with you until I know!"
"If I said I was a simple man of business from Maytland, would you believe me?" he asked with a smug laugh.
"Of course not!" the woman replied at once.
"Alright then," said the man, readjusting his glasses. "I am Hewett Proctor, leader of the Corliss Assassination Squad."
The Maytland knight's jaw dropped. As it well should, Hewett supposed. She didn't seem fit to reply for a long moment.
"And why should we follow you then?" asked the priest, finally finding a firm voice.
"Because the alternative is waiting here in this cell with this corpse and those broken bars for your pirate captors to return," Hewett replied with a smirk.
"You fiend!" the woman called Leandra replied. "I should run you through right here!"
"Would that be wise?" Hewett asked. "You see, this far at sea, the politics between our kingdoms don't matter. It's us and its the pirates."
"He has a point," said the priest after a moment of thought.. "Alright. If it means freedom, I'll follow you for now."
"Excellent," said Hewett. "And you?" He looked to the woman.
"I will kill you," she said with a proud growl. "But I will wait until it would be opportune. For now, I'll do as you say."
"Then it's settled," said the assassin as he prepared to make the escape. "Let us get started then..."
Brendell Trine felt hopelessly uneasy. Scarlett had been killed almost immediately. Shortly after that, they had been swarmed by an entire army of undead, and in the ensuing chase, the group had been split apart, separated by a massive section of ceiling collapsing. Most of the Tempest crew had remained together. Only the crew priest, Trent Redmond had ended up in the other group.
Having Captain Temepest there was somewhat reassuring, though Brendell would be lying to say she wasn't freaked out by the undead creeps they had encountered. The fact that they could be lurking in any dark corner terrified even a tough, confident woman like her. She truly hoped they'd regroup with the others soon.
"I hope they're safe," Enoka started, as the group continued through the dimly lit, all too quiet surroundings, looking for any sign of their friends, undead threats or the treasure they had come for.
"I'm sure they are," said Brendell, forcing a smile. "It's Eirwen and Trent we're talking about. They can't just be written off for nothing. And they got the little girl and those mercenaries with them too."
She glanced over at the captain. As strong and respectable as Rhodanthe was, it was clearly eating at her. Only moments after having lost a friend, she had been separated from not only the one she loved but also her closest friend. There was no true way of knowing if any of them were safe.
"Let's not worry about them when we don't even know if we'll survive this," said Wally. "Let's not forget that they have Trent. We don't. We really have to stay on out toes if we want to get out of this place with our heads."
"You're right, Wally," Rhodanthe spoke, more spirited then she had been. "Worrying about Eirwen and the others will get us nowhere. We just gotta press ahead and find that treasure."
"Sounds like a plan to me, Captain!" Brendell started with a smile, glad to see her Captain recovering, if only a little. If the Captain had her confidence, Brendell could find hers.
"Well, with that settled," Wally spoke with a calm laugh. "Where exactly is this treasure supposed to be?"
"Harkan's gold is hidden away in a hidden chamber near the top," Enoka diligently replied.
"Well that's a convenience I'd say," said Wally, nodding. "If the objectiver is to go up, our paths are bound to cross with the others before long."
"Yeah! That's right," Brendell started with a nod. She felt at once more at ease. This didn't last long however. A horrible shriek sounded nearby. She turned around slowly to find herself staring at the most terrible of undead she had seen yet.
It wasn't even clear if this one had ever been human. it was the size of several men. It was a giant composed of grayed, decayed flesh, it shrieked and wailed as it gnashed its rotten teeth. Its eyes were empty and it reeked of blood and decay. On its shoulder was a human shape.
"Who are you?" Rhodanthe demanded, noticing the humanoid atop the giant.
The figure jumped down. It was a beautiful girl- no, an alarmingly effeminate boy. He had porcelain skin and long pointed ears. His eyes were red and his hair was long and black. He was clad from head to toe in heavy black armor lined with bone white spikes. Massive wings emerged from his back.
"Foolish humans, when will you ever learn not to come to this place?" the boy spoke. "Your willingness to throw away your lives is almost depressing."
"I'll ask again! Who are you?" Rhodanthe shouted, drawing her massive blade and pointing it. The boy didn't even blink.
"Explaining anything would be but a tiresome exercise. You'll understand everything before long," the boy said in a bored voice. "Once you're a part of my undead army, we'll be connected."
"You're controlling them?" Enoka shouted. Brendell didn't know what to think. This demon boy was the necromancer?
"I suppose this one has a brain," said the demon. "Though so do the most basic of animals really."
"Lightning! Water! Wind! I call upon you all. I channel through you the strength of the mightiest hurricane! You are the foundation for the ultimate blade with which I shall rend this enemy in two!" Rhodanthe quickly spoke, not needing to hear anymore. "For Scarlet and everyone else we may have lost! Ultimate Cyclone Slasher!"
Rhodanthe leapt high in the air, forcing her sword down in a powerful downward arc at the crest of her leap. A disc of compressed wind and water with lightning coursing through it appeared and sped from the blade toward the demon. Brendell watched as the boy's body was split in two. The severed halves both then reduced to dust.
"Could it really be that easy?" asked Wally, his gun raised as Brendell's was.
"An impressive spell," the same cocky voice started from nearby. Brendell turned around to find where it was coming, only to see the demon boy re-materialize right behind them from a mass of dark energy. "You're stronger than most. But its quite presumptuous to assume I'm really there."
"What?" Brendell shouted. "What do you mean you're not here?"
"I can appear freely anywhere in my domain, you foolish mortals," said the demon with a laugh. "What you see is but an illusion! My real body is at the highest point of this place!"
"Then I'll have to find it!" Rhodanthe started coldly. "We'll see if it slices open as easy as the illusion."
The demon laughed. "You might prove amusing, human woman," he said. "Come to me, if you think you can!"
"Be waiting for us, you bastard!" Brendell shouted, pointing her cannon at the illusion.
"I don't intend to get my hopes up," the boy said. He gave another laugh. "And just so you know, I may not be really here, but my flesh golem here... it is as real as things get."
Brendell looked back toward the howling monstrosity waiting patiently nearby.
"Go ahead and try fighting it," the boy said, shaking his head. "if you're lucky, I'll choose you to become a part of it!"
And with that, the demon boy disappeared. The horrible beast roared fiercely and started to rush them with more speed then something of its size should have had. Brendell fired at it instantly, as did Wally. Shots, whether magically enhanced by the sniper or from Brendell's mini-cannons didn't even begin to deter it.
"Tempest crew retreat!" Rhodanthe shouted suddenly, catching Brendell off guard. "Run as quick as you can! Get away from that thing!"
Brendell wasn't one to ignore her captains orders. She, Wally and Enoka began to run away quickly. Rhodanthe joined them after throwing a powerful spell at the beast.
"Good call, captain," Enoka said with a nod as they all ran for their lives, the beast only barely deterred by the captain's spell. "It's made of compressed dead flesh and has regenerative qualities. Without Trent, nothing any of us throw at that thing is going to take it down."
Rhodanthe didn't reply to the crew mage. Instead, she ran toward a small door at the end of the corridor. "In here! Everyone!" she shouted.
All of them rushed into the chamber. It was a small, dank room with a fairly low ceiling. Near the center of that ceiling there was a small hole. The crew didn't even have to exchange words. As the flesh golem pounded loudly against the door, it's wails making Brendell's every hair stand on end, she fired one of her cannons at the hole, making it large enough for them to slip through. Wally then got beneath it, and using his size and strength, he lifted every member of the crew up to where they could climb up to the next floor. Then, just as the beast was about the burst into the room, Rhodanthe and Brendell reached back down and lifted the heavy sniper up as well. It took quite the strength, but somehow, just barely, they got him up before the golem could grab at him.
"Hurry!" Rhodanthe shouted. "It might still be able to get us!"
The hole was too small for the golem, but it had the strength to make it bigger and climb up after them. The crew dashed madly from it to put some much needed distance between them and the horror. As they were running, they stumbled upon a flight of stairs. Climbing it and running even further away, they caught their breath. The beasts wails could no longer be made out. They were safe for now.
"I hope Eirwen is safe..." the captain muttered. Brendell looked down. She wasn't sure how long any of them could stay safe in this place.
Trent Redmond let out heavy breaths as he exorcized a vampire. This was about the hundredth he had had to reduce to ash. At least it felt like that many. There was almost no end to the undead forces that were attacking them. He was beginning to really hate it. The fact that he had been separated from his captain and crew made things even worse for him. With this last one at least, for the moment, it seemed like things were in the clear.
"I wonder how the others are holding up without you around," Eirwen Fenix spoke in an uncharacteristically worried voice. "It must be harrowing."
"Oh, but that woman is strong," said the mercenary, Rufus Lestat with a laugh. "From the short time I've known her I can tell, she's the type who will make a way where there isn't one." He shook his head. "And besides, they have the fortune of having darling Nira with them."
"That's right," said Eirwen, nodding. "With her there, there's no need to worry."
"Is that little girl really so good as her big mouth lets on?" asked Broderick Antoly, the other mercenary with them. The third one, Mace, had fallen to the undead in the preceding battle.
Eirwen looked down. She gave a small awkward laugh.
"Oh, it's not talk with that girl," said Rufus with a playful smile. "She's not even human."
"What did you-?" Eirwen started, shaking her head. "She told you?"
"It was just in jest," said Rufus with a smirk. "Unless there's something you're not telling us, Miss Fenix?"
Trent closed his eyes. Something had been bothering him for a while on the subject of the girl called Nira. The name of the hometown she had given had stuck out to him in the most eerie way. He knew he had read the name Agnethe before. It didn't occur to him where originally, but just before they departed he had double checked a collections of ancient scriptures he had once acquired to expand his knowledge of Divine Word.
Agnethe was the name of a village in Rannick, the kingdom that had existed long ago in what was now western Corliss, said to have been ruled by the Demon Queen Delyne. It survived and flourished, as all of Rannick did, until the advent of the Great Holy War, during which almost all of the kingdom was reduced to nothing by the forces of Archerd lead by the god angel Athanasius.
"The child is a demon, isn't she?" Trent asked, finally fully understanding it all.
"What? You mean like a real bloody demon?" Broderick started, shocked by this idea.
"Is that true?" Rufus started. "I mean, I knew Nira wasn't normal... but a demon?" He gave a shrug. "What are you going on there?"
"Her hometown, Agnethe is mentioned in ancient holy documents," Trent said quietly. "It hasn't existed for 1400 years."
"What?" Rufus started. "Come on. Little Nira can't be that old."
"Even I'm surprised by this," said Eirwen, her eyes wide. "I thought even demons started to age before long."
"As a mage, you'd know the most about them," Trent said, shaking his head. "I certainly don't claim to understand."
"So you confirm this then, Eirwen?" Rufus asked with a smirk.
The adventurer reluctantly nodded. "I found her at the very bottom of Blagden's Hell, which was the domain she controlled," she said. "Her strength was like nothing I had seen before. She could have killed me easily. For some reason, she decided I amused her and decided to follow me out of that place."
"This is ridiculous!" Broderick shouted. "All this time, we've had some incredible monster tagging along with us, laughing as she toyed with us and watched us squirm? That pisses me off!"
"I think it's fun," said Rufus with a laugh. "I like Nira a lot. I can't believe she's evil."
"Demons are by nature evil according to the scriptures," said Trent in a low voice.
"What do you think, Trent?" asked Eirwen, looking him in the eye.
The pirate priest sighed. "I'm no official priest. I'm just a pirate who learned how to read the Word on his own. For me, camaraderie is more important than some words on a page written millennia ago." He gave a nod. "And Nira has been a fine comrade so long as I've known her."
"I don't like it," said Broderick. "Far as I can see it, ain't no difference between a demon and these beasts that's been trying to kill us."
"Well, it's abundantly clear team spirit is strong with you, good sir," Rufus said with sarcasm laid on thick. "You are the one who let the vampires take Mace, just to save yourself after all."
"Ain't nobody here who wouldn't have done the same," said the mercenary with a snort.
"I'm not so sure. I don't think I see any other cowards here," Rufus said, looking around playfully. Broderick looked ready to pound his fist into the man.
"Stop it guys," Trent started, shaking his head. "I think we have enough shit down here to worry about without picking fights with each other."
Eirwen gave a nod. "Trent's right. We shouldn't waste our time with this. We should try to regroup with Rhodanthe and Nira as quickly as possible." She gave a long sigh. "And Broderick's right about something too."
"He is?" Rufus started, acting more surprised than necessary. "That might be a first..."
"It is a demon attacking us," she said in a heavy voice. "Nira isn't the only one in this place. She told me she sensed another."
"So the necromancer raising these dead...?" Trent started, feeling just a little sick.
"Exactly," Eirwen started. "Which is why we must be especially careful."
"Then let's get moving already," said Broderick with a small growl. "Ain't we supposed to move toward the top of this thing?"
"Yeah," said Trent with a nod. "That's what the captain said at least."
"Shall we then?" Rufus stepped ahead with a smirk. Eirwen nodded and followed. Trent and the other mercenary joined them.
As he walk Trent shook his head. The things he had to put up with. For anyone less of Rhodanthe Tempest, he would never even think of bothering.
Father, your legends tell me you are a warrior without peer, but what I see in your actions is weakness. What is the point of a king who sits idle as his kingdom is rules by others? What use is power that is never exercised. Rainier can be a strong nation. It should be.
I have seen the future of our kingdom. It will glide on the fairest of of black wings. It will prosper. This woman, this angel, she is what this kingdom needs. She alone will redefine Rainier's place in the world. I will see to it that it happens.
I don't expect you to understand. Understanding is not your best trait. Nevertheless, I will not relent. I cannot relent. For the kingdom I love I will not lay down my sword. I will cut through and forge a strong, proud nation once again.
Too long has this kingdom been ruled by thieves and rogues. Money is not and should not be the core of a kingdom. Rainier will be set right. Rainier will move into the future. Guided on those beautiful, mighty black wings, we will invariably flourish.
Thorbern Randale's expression was stern and strong as he marched toward Hallberg from the Monster' Nest with the small group of assorted adventurers. Big ideas had been flowing in his brain since he met the angel named Wren. He was looking forward to meeting with his father. He was looking forward to forging the future of Rainier.
"Who are they?" asked the adventurer Lyria Felrook.
Thorbern looked up and noticed what the girl did, a moderately large force of armed soldiers marching toward them, swift approaching. He wondered if they were Rainier men at first, but the armor wasn't right.
"Wait... no..." Wren muttered, as she started out at them.
"That's... that's them, isn't it?" the girl called Una Graingier spoke in a shaky voice. She fell to her knees. Tears pooled in her eyes immediately.
"Una? Hey, what's wrong?" the bandit Charlotta demanded, going to comfort the girl.
"I recognize that armor," said Xath Aeon in a steady voice.
"Yes," said Zelenia Reid. "It's obviously the armor of the Maytland Magic Knights."
"Maytland?" Destan Hanley started. "This far into Rainier?'
"Hey you're right those are May-" Charlotta started, her attention going from Una to the approaching knights. "Wait! Those are the Ninth Squad!" The bandit seemed to suddenly panic, and dashed to the very back of the group, hiding behind Xath.
"What are you...?" Elidi Gorman stared at her inquisitively, her head tilted.
"These knights..." Wren finally spoke. "They are the ones who razed our village. They took everything from Una... They killed father Craddock... They..." Even the angel was weeping now, overwhelmed by emotion.
"Then the course of action seems pretty simple to me," said Lyria with a big smirk, fist in hand. "We pound all of their faces in!"
"Hold!" Thorbern started in an authoritative voice, extending a hand. "Stand back!" he commanded as he stepped to the front of the group. This surprised much of the group. "We will try and avoid confrontation. An all out battle between magic knights and adventurers is something to be avoided at all costs!"
"But-!" Lyria started, clearly frustrated. The prince silenced her with a shake of his head.
A few moments later, the Magic Knights had closed in. The two groups were finally face to face. At the front of the knights was an effeminate teen boy with black hair, dressed in lighter armor than the rest. With him was a very large man dressed in pitch black armor made to intimidate. Neither one looked to Thorbern like a worthy leader.
"Well look here, Nevin," the knight in black started. "We've actually found her!" He pointed his axe toward Wren.
"Fallen angel, by the authority invested in us by Empress Berengaria, you are hereby under arrest for your crimes. We ask that you surrender yourself at once," the boy started authoritatively.
"Whoa..." the black knight spoke, having broken from formation. "Is that-?" He seemed to be staring past Xath to the still hiding Charlotta. "It is! First Lieutenant Martynson..."
"Silence, Cathan! This isn't time for..." the boy who had been called Nevin protested his subordinate's lack of discipline. "Wait, you mean the murderer of Captain Noland's predecessor?"
"The one and only," the armored man replied. "I'd recognize that pretty little face anywhere!"
"Excellent. Then it's not one but two wanted fugitives we shall apprehend today!" the boy replied with a steady nod. "Come out, Martynson! You are under arrest as well!"
The bandit slowly stood and stepped forward, looking none to pleased. She glared at the man in armor. "You're the lowest, Cathan. It doesn't surprise me that it's you involved in this..." She looked over at Una' still on her knees, crying. "Especially since I don't see her around."
"You mean Captain Noland?" Nevin started. "She was all too involved until recently."
"That woman proved useless," the one Charlotta had called Cathan said with a fierce laugh. "She was stupid enough to get herself abducted by pirates."
"Pirates?" Charlotta muttered, giving a short awkward laugh. "I can't believe that..."
"Unless you spy any other wanted criminals in this pack, Cathan, I think it's time we finish up here," Nevin started coldly. "Men! Apprehend the wanted!"
"You'll do no such thing," Thorbern said sternly, standing tall at the front of the group.
"Oh? Under who's authority do you think you can stop us?" Cathan started with a deep laugh.
"By the authority of the Randale name! I Prince Thorbern Randale of the Kingdom of Rainier declare that any further advance on this party shall be taken as an act of aggression on Rainier by Maytland!" Thorbern said in a loud, clear voice.
The boy Nevin's eyes went wide. The armored man just laughed. "You're supposed to be some prince of something. Ha! Like I'd-"
"Silence you contemptible oaf!" Nevin shouted, pushing the much larger man aside as he nervously stepped forward. He bowed to the prince in respect. "I hope you may excuse the behavior of my men, your highness. We knew not who's presence we shared." He gave a nod. "I am Nevin Coyle. Acting Captain of the Ninth Squadron of Maytland's Magic Knights." He straightened his postured and nodded toward Wren. "It happens the one you shield, the angel calling itself Wren, is wanted by Maytland and the Semiran Church for crimes of genocide."
"This woman, Wren Pandra, has saved my life, and moreover the lives of everyone with whom I travel here today," the prince countered forcefully. "I see no reason to believe your story over the nobility and strength of character I have witnessed with my own eyes!"
"But-" Nevin fumbled nervously. The boy was clearly petrified of causing an international incident. "But, the church... surely you've seen their statements indicting the angel for her crimes. It's not my word, it comes straight from the Pope himself!"
"Bardrick Teo has no political authority over Rainier," Thorbern sternly replied.
"But that's-!" Nevin started. He backed up, looking defeated. "T-the woman in red..." he started. "Martynson... she's wanted for murder and desertion. Can we have her at least?"
It was almost laughable to see how the boy's strong speech and holding had crumbled so entirely to this. His demands were now issued in a voice that could only be called infirm and pathetic. Thorbern shook his head. "This woman too is a hero of Rainier. She personally slew a fearsome demon which had been plaguing one of our forests and displayed clear valor."
Nevin clenched his fist, which began to shake. He turned around in a single furious motion. "Magic knights, we march back to Maytland! Our mission has ended in failure."
"What? Just because the prince of some-" Cathan protested, sounding furious.
"Do not finish that sentence!" Nevin screamed, looking a total mess now. He looked back toward Thorbern. The boy seemed almost ready to cry. "We thank you for your time, Prince Thorbern."
Without another word, the boy started to lead his men away, defeated and demoralized. Thorbern's group watched as they made their retreat.
"Uh..." Charlotta spoke, moving toward the prince. "Er... thanks," she said, smiling weakly.
"I did nothing that wasn't warranted," said the prince, shaking his head.
"It's all true you know," she said in a weak voice. "I was one of them... I killed my superior while he was sleeping and I deserted."
"The past seldom contains all pleasantness," said Thorbern in a gruff voice. "That doesn't dictate who we are..."
"But..." Charlotta started. She stepped toward Una. "Will you ever be able to look at me the same, knowing I was once with them?"
The red headed woman moved toward the bandit and embraced her softly. She smiled. "You're my friend, Charlotta. Nothing could change that."
This seemed to calm the bandit. "You really are too nice..."
"I..." Wren started to speak, moving toward Thorbern. "I don't know what to say, Your Highness... I-I..."
"The same goes for you, Wren," he said steadily. "Your past crimes do not matter."
"Wait, but that knight called it 'genocide'?" Zelenia said, her voice a little concerned. "That sounds like kinda hard to overlook stuff to me..."
"They're just saying that!" Una started. "It was those bad knights who did it all!"
Wren looked down. "They're not talking about Irvyn, Una. Not entirely at least. There was another town. Fourteen years ago. Norwyn..."
"The Norwyn calamity?" Lyria started at once, the event more recent to her given her situation. "You mean that huge incident?"
"Indeed," said Wren, looking vulnerable. "I was the cause of that. Everyone there died because of me..."
"Was it your fault?" Elidi asked, her head titled.
"Of course!" said Wren, like it should be apparent. "If I hadn't been there, it wouldn't have happened!"
"That's not the same," said Una, shaking her head. "I can't believe you'd ever have willingly killed people, Wren. You're the kindest person I know."
Wren shook her head. "I wanted to kill in that moment. I wanted desperately for someone to be dead..."
"But not the whole town," said Destan with a nod. "From what I know of it, Norwyn was destroyed in an instant by some powerful magic... or I suppose miracle would be more accurate if it was you..."
"When we're pushed to the edge," the quiet Xath spoke. "Sometimes new power is found. Power we can't normally access. Power we can't hope to control."
"It doesn't matter if I was in control or not..." Wren started. "I still-!"
"Let's not speak of the matter," Thorbern said in a strong voice. "Let's continue. We must speak with my father."
"Yes," said Orsala Lyons, the most quiet of the entire group, the amnesiac girl, still ill, was sleeping on her back. "It is best this girl is brought to a bed and physician quickly too."
"Okay. Let's go then," said Wren with a nod.
Gwayne Garron sat in his office, a smug look on his face. It was kind of boring being at the top. It was mostly busywork. Sitting around, managing others, making sure requests for work got to capable adventurers. At the same time, it made him feel like he had power, and he liked having power. Still, he did kind of miss being out there, displaying his own strength. He'd have to set aside a job for himself soon.
Mulling over those thoughts, the underground king found his solitude interrupted. He figured at first that it was just that idiot woman Rochelle coming to him to appease her boredom and sexual appetite. But no, it proved to be a number of his adventurers, having returned from assignment. He nodded to Orsala Lyons, Elidi Gorman, Xath Aeon and the two new faces that had left for the Monsters' Nest. Craddock's disciple and the other one.
"Ah, so yer back?" he said, looking at them. "I trust the Monsters' Nest was a success then?"
"The mission was a failure, sir," Orsala spoke as steadily as ever.
"Yes," said Elidi. "It is with much regret we must inform you that the kidnapped women we were sent to rescue were slain before we could secure them."
Garron gave a small shake of his head. This is what he got for leaving such a delicate operation to a bunch of women. He really did need to do more himself. "Failure of this kind makes us look bad. And when the clients are members of the senate, it's even more inexcusable."
"The mission was a failure," said Xath. "But we did meet some success. The culprit responsible for the crime was killed, thanks almost entirely to Wren here."
Garron looked toward the tanned woman who had learned from Craddock. He studied her a moment. "Is that so? I thought the kidnappers were simply common imps?"
"They were being controlled," said Orsala, in a low voice. "For centuries likely, the Monsters' Nest had been housing a demon by the name of Abellona. It was this demon, who had recently decided to become more active, who kidnapped the senators' loved ones."
"A demon?" Garron was surprised. He had encountered a demon once. It was one of two times in his life he had known fear. The other was the day he lost his eye. "This girl bested a demon then? 'Er Divine Word is that incredible?"
"Well, she did learn from Mister Craddock!" Elidi started cheerfully.
"True," said Garron. "Demons are weak ta God's light." He nodded. "I can believe it."
"Wren saved us," said Orsala. "Our party was defeated by the demon and cursed. Not only did she weaken the demon so that it could be killed, but she freed us all, along with a number of others who the demon had made prisoners."
"I see," said Garron. "And the other girl?"
"She supported me," said Wren in a soft voice. "Una isn't strong and she lacks in skills. But... I couldn't have done anything without her."
"That's not quite good enough, I say," said Garron with a snort. "But you, yer in." he nodded to the woman, Wren Pandra. "Ya 'ave my full recognition as an adventurer!"
"Adventurer?" the girl called Una started, looking surprised.
"Yeah..." Wren said. "I kind of figured it out a while ago, Una. It was sort of a misunderstanding..." She gave a short smile. "But I don't mind. I think I ended up doing something really good as a result."
"Well, if you're happy, Wren..." Una started, smiling brightly but still looking confused.
Garron honestly had little idea what they were talking about and didn't particularly care. He was certainly pleased though. Priests were the rarest breed of adventurers and it there was a new one around of this caliber it could only be a good thing.
"So, that's about the all of it," said Garron with a nod. "None of rest you will be gettin' a reward for your efforts."
"Alright," said Wren in a respectful voice. "Thank you."
"Great!" said Elidi, who seemed quite happy for the other two women. "You two better hurry along to the castle then! Wouldn't want to keep the king waiting."
"The king?" Garron perked up. "What these two got ta do with ol' Randale?"
"Prince Thorbern was among those rescued from the demon," Xath explained.
"Now don't that beat all..." Garron started in a low voice. "I s'pose there will be rewards bein' 'anded out then..."
He gave a bold laugh. Quite the attention this new adventurer would be getting. First assignment and she already had the royalty in her debt. Certainly a feat, that. This Wren Pandra was someone he'd have to watch closely.
Charlotta gave a long sigh as she sat at a stool at Hanley's Pub. She felt more comfortable here now for some reason. Part of it was that she had been invited in by Lyria. Part of it was that she was just out of it. Her mind was still back there at the meeting she had been dreading for all of three years.
Or well, she wasn't sure it entirely qualified. Leandra hadn't been there. Pirates had gotten her, really? Charlotta didn't know whether to be concerned for her or just relieved that she had avoided that particular meeting. Seeing Cathan Muiredach again certainly hadn't been pleasant though. It was people like him who had convinced her she needed out of that place. Knowing he was a part of Una's pain just kind of pissed her off. The pub was a good place for her. She definitely felt like drinking.
"I still can't believe it..." said Calder Hanley, engaged in conversation with Lyria. "All this time we thought you were dead..."
"I know, it's just crazy..." Lyria said. "You're all old now..."
The barman gave a low growl. "Thanks a lot..."
"It's good to have you back, Lyria," said the old mage named Jyles Derry, nodding to the woman. "Most lost friends don't just suddenly return after all."
"Yep! Well, I'm definitely glad to be back!" Lyria said cheerfully. She clearly had a lot of catching up to do.
"You seem less nervous around me than usual," Charlotta decided to say something, eyeing the information seller sitting near her.
"Er... I... The Glorious Troubadour merely thought that you seemed less intimidating than before," Rune Darnall replied with some nervousness.
"Heh. I wonder about that..." she said, baring her teeth through a grin.
"So, Rune," Zelenia Reid, who had accompanied Lyria and Charlotta to the pub while her girlfriend accompanied Wren and the others to meet Garron, started. "Any information you have that could be bought for a drink?"
"Er..." Rune calmed down and smiled. "Why don't we find out, Zelenia."
"Calder! One of whatever this miserable sod takes," Zelenia called out, indicating Rune, throwing some gold pieces onto the bar. Calder walked over with a tall glass of ale.
"Well, as you may have heard," Rune started to talk freely as he sipped his drink. "Eirwen Fenix departed with the Tempest Crew to take on Harkan Island."
"Eirwen Fenix? You mean that bitch you sicked me on who kicked my ass?" Charlotta spoke with a snort.
"Er... yeah..." Rune said, smiling nervously. "That's her..."
"She takes on Harkan immediately after the Hell?" Zelenia said in a low voice. "My rival certainly has ambition equal to her master, even if she'll never hope to match him in any other way."
"Harkan's arguably more of a death trap than the Hell..." said Destan, who was also sitting nearby. "It's not as big an undertaking, but fewer people have ever returned."
"Tempest and Fenix together won't die easy," said Zelenia, shaking her head. "I wager we'll see them again, unfortunate as that may be."
"You really just don't like her..." Destan said with a sigh. Zelenia replied with a simple smile.
"What else you got," said Charlotta to Rune, not particularly caring about the cloaked woman who had nearly killed her. "I'd say that little is hardly worth Zelenia's drink."
Rune sighed. "Wystan and Calantha departed for a Farramond expedition a couple days back," he started, looking hopeful.
"Boring," Zelenia said with some indignation. "Save it for when you have something more juicy to report between those two."
"The Silver Reaper is active in Rainier. He was here at Hanley's. He was looking for your friend named Wren," Rune said, looking even more nervous than before.
"Silver Reaper?" Charlotta started, shrugging. "Never heard of him."
"He's probably one of the more dangerous men you'll ever find," said Destan in a low voice. "A freelance hunter who rejects association with us adventurers. Brutal killer who's had relics grafted directly into his body. He had a certain history with Osman and that lot."
"Could mean serious trouble for Wren," Zelenia said in a low voice.
"Indeed," said Destan. He glanced at Rune. "But if he was here in the pub, that information isn't particularly valuable or rare."
"How about this then," the masked man started, giving a confident nod. "Preparations have already begun within the castle for the coming Rainier Grand Tournament."
"Well that's certainly exciting," said Zelenia, her interest clearly piqued. "I mean. I assumed it would be cancelled what with the war going on all around us."
"Yeah, I did too," said Destan, nodding. "We certainly won't be seeing much participation from other kingdom's this time, I'd wager."
"What's this tournament?" Charlotta asked, unfamiliar with it.
"The Rainier Grand Tournament is held at the castle every five years to determine who is the strongest in Astraeia," Rune explained steadily. "Mostly its adventurers who compete, but champions of Maytland, Corliss, Vernell and beyond have been encouraged to attend in the past."
"I see," said Charlotta with a laugh. "Figures you adventurers would come up with some crazy competition like that." She smirked. "So what's the winner get?"
"The winner is awarded the chance to fight the king," said Destan shaking his head. "No ones really sure what you get if you beat him, as its never happened before and probably never will happen. Just getting to that point is a major boost to your reputation, however."
"Garron won the last two tournaments," Zelenia started with a steady nod. "Before that, Osman was the safest bet you could make."
"Garron?" Charlotta started, surprised to hear the name. "Someone beats that guy..."
"They get the respect and the power," Destan said, with a nod. "That's what its about. This tournament has the power to change quite a lot about how were organized."
"So, anyone around who could beat that guy?" asked Charlotta, now curious.
"I doubt it," said Zelenia with a shrug. "You should have seen the last tournament. He embarrassed the woman who made it to the final round. Toyed with her before the crowd and then maimed her. Cut out her eye; I guess so she'd be like him. That woman, Hendrik, used to be a regular in the scene, and one of the most capable warriors you'll ever find. Now she doesn't even show her face in Rainier."
"Wow, that's sick," Charlotta started, impressed by the ruthlessness being described.
"If Tempest can get back in time, my moneys on her to make it to the final round," said Destan, steadily. "That pirate has the skills to at least give Garron a fight."
"Tempest, eh?" Zelenia spoke in a low voice. "Yeah, I can kind of see that. Aren't exactly a lot of other options."
"So any of you guys gonna enter?" asked Charlotta with a laugh.
"Of course," said Zelenia with a smile. "I don't think I'll win, but I'm sure me and Elidi will give it a go. Just placing high enough can do wonders for your rep after all. Might be a good chance to best Eirwen if she makes it."
"I'm sure a lot of us will compete," said Destan, nodding. "You should as well."
"Eh," said Charlotta, shrugging. "I'm not sure it's my scene exactly."
"I wonder how Wren would do?" Zelenia asked, her voice becoming quiet.
"She won't participate," said Destan, shaking his head. "It's not like her."
"I'd pay to see Wren wreck Garron's smug face," said Charlotta with a smirk. "But you're right. That girl wouldn't enter something like this, not when she wants to keep certain things under wraps."
"I wonder what our friend the prince wants with her?" Destan asked in a steady voice.
"I'm sure we'll find out eventually," said Charlotta with another shrug.
Wren wasn't entirely sure what to think as she was escorted by two guards and the prince through the expansive halls of Castle Rainier. She felt out of place. Her emotions were so entirely mixed she felt like she was going to explode. She couldn't say a word to Thorbern. He had her gratitude. She still wasn't sure she deserved his protection, Garron's recognition or any of the praise she had received. Now she was to meet with a king. She hardly knew what to think.
"Presenting Crown Prince Thorbern and his guest, Wren Pandra!" one of the guard's started loudly as they entered the castle throne room.
They were shown in. Wren stared in awe at the luxurious room, decorated with only the finest of things. At the center of it all was set of stairs draped in red. Atop them was a giant chair and in it sat a giant man. His bright red hair and beard flowed out around him, matching the crimson of his robes. A jeweled crown of gold rest atop his head. He looked exactly like Wren thought a king might.
"My son, you have returned!" the king bellowed, staring down a them as they approached. "You should not have completed your travels yet."
"My journey was cut short, father," Thorbern spoke in a stern, steady voice. "My men and I ran afoul of a fearsome demon in the Monsters' Nest! They were all slain. I was placed under a curse for these past several months."
"What's this? A demon? A curse?" the king shouted, surprised by the words. "There are such horrors so close as the Monsters' Nest?"
"Aye, father," Thorbern said. "There were. It is the woman before us now, Wren, who freed the curse and allowed for the demon to be slain."
The king's eyes studied Wren closely. "She seems but a normal girl," he said. "Who is she?"
"Wren. Can I ask you to reveal yourself?" Thorbern asked in a low voice, nodding to her. "It will be easier to show than to tell."
Wren nodded quietly. She took a step forward. She let her power slowly pour out. Her hair took on its natural silver. Her wings appeared from her back. She stood quiet as the king stared.
"The feathered wings..." said the king, staring in shock. "She is a..."
"An angel, father," said Thorbern. "This woman is one of God's angel."
"But those wings..." the king spoke. His eyes widened as something occurred to him. "The church's warning! This must be the same one as that-!"
"I remind you father, this woman has saved my life! She has rid our lands of a scourge!" Thorbern protested. "I've seen nothing in her actions but the most noble and selfless."
"My son..." said the king in a low grumble. "You put me in a terribly difficult place. Do you know that this woman is wanted by the church?"
"So I have heard," said Thorbern in a strong voice. "But I have reason to believe she is wrongly accused. Furthermore, I believe in all my heart that while she may be wanted elsewhere, here in Rainier, Wren is needed!"
"What are you speaking of, my son?" the king questioned in a low voice. "I do not follow."
"Has it not occurred to you?" Thorbern asked. "What it is that our kingdom lacks?"
"Lacks?" King Randale shouted. "Speak not in riddles, boy!"
"Consider it, father! Archerd with her Athanasius, Melozza and Caerwyn. Maytland and Lucanus and Anthemia. Vernell with Ragnild. Even Corliss had her Haskel and Udolf before their king went mad and had them destroyed!" Thorbern started. "Our kingdom however..."
"What of it?" the king started. "What are you intending?"
"We shall elevate this Wren! We shall build for her a cathedral! She will become the angel of Rainier, the Angel of Hope!" Thorbern proposed. Wren looked back at him, shocked. She couldn't believe it. This was his plan? It sounded ridiculous.
"You return early from your task with this preposterous idea?" the king spoke. "My son... you disappoint me."
"What of it is preposterous?" Thorbern questioned. "The symbolic significance of the angels is noted. In creating a better Rainier, we need one of our own!"
"Your plan is ill conceived, my son," said the king, shaking his head. "You intend to build a church for one the Church has declared an enemy? Do you not see the foolishness of that?"
"That is why Cathedral Wren will not be associated with the Holy Semiran Church!" Thorbern started in a strong voice.
The king looked as perplexed as Wren felt. "My son... what are you saying? How could the Church not be involved?"
"I see not why Rainier needs to be bound to the pope!" Thorbern started. "I say we throw off his reigns! We'll start a new faith! A church built from the same principles, but with you, the king of Rainier at the head!"
"What you suggest is sacrilege! Blasphemy! Son, Rainier cannot separate from the Church," the king started, shaking his head fiercely. "It shouldn't even be discussed. For one thing, it would mean war for Rainier."
"We've stayed out of the war long enough!" Thorbern protested.
"You have much to learn, son..." said the king, shaking his head. "For saving your life, I will protect your angel so long as you wish it so. However, I will not entertain the rest of this nonsense. I do suggest you begin your quest anew! Seeing the world might set your confused head straight."
"Understood, father," Thorbern said. "I have nothing more to say."
With that, the prince departed the throne. Wren bowed to his father before following him out. She was even more unsure what to think than before. Her, honored in a cathedral? She was an angel. She always had been, of course. But she hadn't ever even put herself in the same category with the likes of Lucanus, Anthemia or the other angels honored in lavish churches, sought out for blessings.
"I kind of agree with your father... I don't think I'm cut out for what you have in mind," Wren said as the two found themselves alone in a corridor. "It just sounds really weird to me."
"I can see it clearly enough," said Thorbern, shaking his head. "And I maintain that it will happen."
"But your father-!" Wren spoke.
"My father is a stubborn man who has never been able to see what is best for Rainier. He resists change even when it will be for the better," the prince spoke. "I knew he would reject this idea. It will happen all the same."
"What do you intend?" Wren asked, entirely unsure what to make of what the prince was saying.
"In just months a tournament is being held. My father will challenge the winner to a fight," Thorbern replied finally. "Should he lose that fight, my father will be dishonored. Tradition dictates that he'll retire his crown, allowing it to be passed to me." The prince gave a nod. "I simply need to ensure my father loses."
"How are you going to do that?" asked Wren, surprised.
"You're going to help," said Thorbern. "With your angelic might, you're the only one who can."
"Me?" Wren started, shocked. "What?"
"You are to stay at the castle, Wren. You shall receive training in the art of combat and in the Divine Word," Thorbern said steadily. "When the Tournament comes you will participate on my behalf. You will win and you will defeat my father."
"I-I..." Wren spoke. It sounded absurd to her. "I really don't think I..."
"You're friend Una will be allowed to live in the castle as well," Thorbern said. "The two of you will be defended. You will be safe here."
Wren froze up. Una. Una would be safer in this castle than anywhere else. Wren didn't want a cathedral built for her. She didn't want to be the "Angel of Hope". She didn't care about any of that. But if it was to keep Una safe, there was little she wouldn't have agreed to.
She gave a solemn nod. "if you swear to keep Una always safe, then I'll do it," she said. "I'll fight for you. I however can't promise anything beyond that. I can't promise I'll defeat your father or even win the tournament."
"Fair enough, Wren," the prince said. "But I have faith. My father is not as invulnerable as legends will have you believe." He smiled quietly. "Find Una. I'll have someone show you both to your new rooms."
"Alright," Wren said, nodding. She turned to leave the prince. Just the mention of Una had set her mind at ease. All at once she remembered why she was doing everything. She was going to restore her dear friend's happiness anyway she could.
I don't know where I came from. If anyone knows the circumstances of my birth, they've made careful to obscure the knowledge from me. Growing up in the nunnery, I wondered it often. I wondered if I had a mother or father out there somewhere. I wondered if there was some other place I should be.
I especially wondered these thoughts as my abilities started to show. It was hard not to wonder why as words of praise showered me, as I was called a prodigy, as I was noticed by people who mattered. I was but a child. I didn't know what to do. I said I wanted to help others, because that's what I was taught to want.
I found that the paladin corps wanted my power. I'm not sure I understood fully why, but I took it as a chance to apply myself for good. They took me in and my power made me climb quickly. It still doesn't mean much to me. I'm still a child. I'm still lost.
The angel's words and Devon's choice still linger in my mind. I stayed true to my heart, but I won't pretend to know what is right. Again, all I can go on is what I learned back in the nunnery. All I have is the moral code that was instilled into me. All I have is my sense of justice. I hope that will prove enough.
Annwyll Logann was happy to finally be reaching her destination. Laurent Manor loomed on the horizon. Her and Alfonsia had effectively escorted Bishop Farrier to this place, no thanks to that fool Devon who had abandoned them for a pretty girl and a rogue angel's mad power grab. It had been hard crossing the border and progressing into Corliss, but here they were. As the reached the door, Anwyll had to commend herself for a job well done.
"Ah, the Princess has been expecting you," the maid who greeted them at the door started cheerily. "Please, everyone, do come in."
They followed the maid in and were promptly taken to a chamber with a large table at its center. At the table, three women were sitting.
"Arleigh!" one of these women, a blonde woman in her thirties with glasses upon her face and her hair up in a bun, said. "It's been far too long. It is a great relief that you have arrived safely."
"It is only with the accompaniment of these two fair paladins that I've arrived with my head where it is, Marchioness," the bishop started with a laugh. "Let me introduce Annwyll Logann and Alfonsia Glendower, my knights."
"A pleasure to meet you both," said the Marchioness, nodding to the two knights. "I am Vigdess Telford."
"It's an honor," Annwyll said. Alfonsia gave a similar reply.
"And I am Halfrida Laurent," a small, petite woman with long black hair started.
This name brought more of a reaction. It was the name of royalty. Annwyll made a small bow. "It is truly a great honor, Your Highness."
"All that is not necessary," the princess said, shaking her head. "You can speak freely around me."
"I'll keep that in mind," said Annwyll. She looked toward the third woman. She had mid length black hair and wore light armor.
"Eluned Reve," she said in a low voice. "I can't be here long."
"Is Valda to attend today?" Arleigh asked with a small laugh.
"No," Vigdess replied. "Though we are in contact."
"I see," the bishop replied. "What's she been up to anyway?"
"She's retired to the wilderness in the west, living out of some Rannick ruins. She's a hermit. Half insane it seems," the marchioness started. "She insists she's still committed to Hywell's vision though, and that her magic hasn't weakened in the slightest."
"She was crazy even when we knew her," Arleigh remarked with a laugh. "Don't surprise me any."
"So what of you, Bishop?" Halfrida asked. "You've returned to Corliss even at the possible cost of your life?"
"I'm no coward, princess," the bishop started. "My heart remains in Corliss, and my head remains with my dear friend Hywell and what he wanted."
"What's happened to you, Arleigh?" Vigdess started in a teasing voice. "You're sounding almost respectable for a change..."
"It does a man's heart good to be surrounded by so many beautiful women," the priest commented with a hearty laugh.
"I spoke too soon, it seems," the marchioness gave a long sigh. "But we're not here for games." She nodded to the armored girl beside her. "Eluned is our agent inside the castle. She has full privy into Arcelius' secrets."
"My... that sounds dangerous," said the bishop, stroking his mustache slowly.
"Eluned is Valda's apprentice," Vigdess informed. "Her magic is on a comparable level. Additionally, she trained under my husband before his passing, and has near his mastery of assassin skill. She is among the most capable agents we currently have."
"You just have to reveal all my secrets," Eluned wryly commented. "I like it better when I keep them guessing."
"Through Eluned, we have a good idea of what is going on in the castle. Chiefly, Arcelius believes himself to be losing the war. He is making plans to assassinate the warrior king and bring Rainier into the war. Additionally, his researchers are at work on getting relic war machines prepared for an all out invasion of Vernell. They believe that with Rainier's help and a direct line to Vernell's relic supply, they will turn the tide and effectively crush their enemies," Vigdess recounted in a firm voice.
"It doesn't sound like he's wrong either," said Eluned in a low voice. "Arcelius is smart, and he's surrounded himself with exceptional people and not quite people who only let him be smarter. If he gets to enact his plan, he likely will win his war."
"'Not quite people'?" Annwyll started, finding the phrase peculiar.
"Arcelius Dargan has a literal demon on his figurative shoulder," Eluned quipped playfully.
"A demon?" Bishop Farrier questioned. "My God... he consorts with beasts? How could an apple fall so very far from its tree?"
"Hywell should have used a firmer hand," said Vigdess, shaking her head in disdain. "Either that or this apple was just rotten from the start."
"So how do we ensure that Arcelius doesn't win?" Arleigh asked with a small smirk.
"It's not something we alone can do," Vigdess replied steadily. "Eluned can get into the castle, but getting close to Arcelius is another matter. Aloisia Hendrik and her talented Royal Guard are an ever looming presence, ever vigil. It's their job to recognize when something is amiss and rectify it. Their presence alone has made things incredibly difficult for Eluned to remain mobile."
"It's going to have to be you guys on the outside. And it's probably going to have to get dangerous," said Eluned in a low voice.
"We've decided that if we can't directly stop Arcelius' plan, we'll just have to cause it to come unhinged," Halfrida started in. "We have to give Arcelius something he hasn't accounted for."
"We need to stir a massive uprising in Corliss," said Vigdess. "Something big that will require the full attention of the military. If we can do enough to make Arcelius' plan fail, an assault on the castle will become more feasible."
Annwyll closed her eyes. This was the second plan for great upheaval she had been privy to in only so long. Was it strange for her to be so distant from them both? She just wasn't sure about it. What made Halfrida Laurent fit to rule? What motivated these people to fight for her? Her personality wasn't so abrasive as the angel Melozza, but even still the young paladin could hardly understand it why these people were so willing to fight.
She did however understand one thing. Unlike Archerd, where she had a hard time convincing herself all of what the angel had said about the Church leaders was true, Annwyll knew she did not agree with what Arcelius stood for. He was a threat worth fighting. He was something she could fight against, even if this spirit of revolution continued to elude her.
"I'll be needed to speak then," said Arleigh with a grumble. "Are we sure these people are receptive? They've lived with this tyranny for years now..."
"That's the tricky part of it," said Vigdess, shaking her head. "But it's needed. We must strike a chord with the common populace. Albern tried to appeal only to the nobility and was found out and silenced."
"We have to move carefully and quietly then," Arleigh groaned. "Even then it's likely we'll all get killed."
"That about sums it up," Eluned said with a simple nod.
"How entirely insane. You women are out of your mind," the priest said with a full laugh. "I'm in!"
"For Corliss, for father, for everything, we have to do this, and we have to not fail," Halfrida said steadily.
"And what do you paladins think of what you're hearing?" Vigdess turned her eyes on Annwyll and Alfonsia, much to the young girl's surprise.
"It doesn't have much to do with me, quite frankly," said Alfonsia in a low voice. "Though I will stay so long as I'm needed here. That was the arrangement."
Annwyll nodded. "I can't claim to understand it all, or believe in any of it, but I know what I was taught. I know that I'd like to see the people of Corliss spared the choke of tyranny that now cripples them. I know that this terrible war needs to end. I know that the suffering all needs to stop. If this plan will ensure any of that, I will defend it with my life."
"I like this one," said Eluned with a smirk. "Annwyll, was it?'
"That's correct," the young paladin started.
"I can see it now, kid," the woman said in a low voice. "You're going to be a great part of this."
"I don't know..." Annwyll started, not sure what to say.
"We welcome you all," Vigdess said. "We expect you'll be valuable additions to our cause."
Arleigh laughed. "It feels good to be a part of it!"
Annwyll just stared ahead, still dwelling on what she had said. Maybe this spirit did resonates somewhere in her? Maybe she had only been afraid back in Thayne? Maybe she was afraid of examining herself, examining her faith, the foundation? It was certainly easier for her to invest herself in the plights of this foreign land. She didn't know what that said, just as she didn't know where God would guide her.
Devon Hayle gave a resigned, vulnerable sigh as he approached the all too familiar lavish estate in central Bogdona. He had been in the city for a week now. Estrid had been there even longer, having been flown in personally by the angel. He hadn't seen her very many times since arriving. As it were, the angel kept her on a pretty tight schedule as she prepared for her part in the coming opera. Devon had to say he looked forward to it.
He didn't look forward to this. He was staring at the Hayle Manor. His father had heard of his return and had called for him. Devon hated meeting with his father. No, he hated his father period. Meetings such as this always served only as a bitter reminder of his failings. As he was shown in by the servants, his heart felt heavy. He was not looking forward to this.
He was escorted to his father's study. The room was long and Randall Hayle sat at the very end of it. His posture was straight and immaculate as the suit he wore. He stared at Devon in his typical way, so as it felt as if he was peering straight through him. Devon struggled to keep from trembling. He could not show weakness before this man.
"So it's true," Randall spoke, his voice crisp and accusative in tone. "You have returned to the city."
"Aye, sir," Devon simply replied.
"As I recall, Cardinal Barrett set you upon a task," the wealthy man started, his strong voice unwavering. "What cause do you possibly have to stray from it?"
"A replacement was provided of equal rank and better talent," Devon said in a low voice.
"Did I ask such a thing?" the man demanded.
"No, sir," said Devon in a drained voice. "It was the angel of Thayne. She took an interest in me and wanted me for another task."
"Stupid child!" Randall raised his voice. "What is some angel to you? You are a paladin! The Cardinal hand selected you for a mission and disgracefully you turned your back on it? What manner of nonsense is that?"
"I was-" Devon started. His father cut him off near immediately to speak some more.
"This was an opportunity to get the Hayle name further entwined in history!" he shouted. "Should that bishop truly succeed in upturning Corliss, those who fight at his side will be celebrated in the new Corliss."
"Sir, I-" Devon tried to speak again. Once more, he didn't get very far.
"You somehow haven't seemed to grasped it yet, you useless child," the man started in a cold, bitter voice. "You're only good for your name. My name. It is all you have. You exist to fight and bring more fame to the house Hayle. Nothing more and nothing less!"
Feeling deflated and broken, Devon looked down. He didn't even remember what he had planned to say at first. Then she occurred to him. Estrid. She was his excuse. She was the reason for his actions.
"Sir, I... I met someone outside Thayne. A woman," Devon started finding a firm voice. "For once, I can actually feel a spark!"
"What is this you spout now?" the older Hayle shouted. "You with a woman? What possible hope is there in that?"
"I-I..." Devon spoke, his voice trembling. "If it happens, I can take a wife... won't I then finally be a proper heir?"
"You think sin will wash away your uselessness? What good does it do? It's all for appearances. You will never continue the Hayle name," Randall gave a contemptuous scowl. "You will only be a proper heir the day you die in battle a hero."
"Sir, I-" Devon started in protest. Again the older man failed to let him finish.
"You are my greatest shame. May your disgraceful presence now leave my sight," he declared, before looking down, away from his son.
Devon trembled, feeling lower than ever before. He hung his head in defeat. There was nothing he could say. There was nothing that could be said. He left his father be without another word. Slowly Devon made his way for his own chamber within the house. He wanted out of that place, but more than that he just wanted a place where he could be alone for a moment. Locking the door behind him, tears began to flow.
Wanting to collapse on his bed, Devon went about removing his thick golden armor and placed it aside. He then removed the coat he wore underneath, folding it and placing it upon a chair. As he moved toward the bed, he passed a large mirror. He stopped to peer into it for a moment.
He stared hard at the person reflected there. He couldn't say he even knew her, this woman. She certainly wasn't Devon Hayle. She was no one. She had never been allowed to exist. The proud lineage of the Hayle family of paladins passed from father to son. The tradition could be traced back to the Dark Era. Randall Hayle was too great a man to break that tradition. He was too proud a man to produce only daughters. Even if his wife had been lost in the birth, he had finally found his male heir in Devon. That was the public story at least. Randall's part was played. It was Devon who was set now to inevitably fail the family name.
Collapsing on the bed, Devon thought of Estrid. Why was she so different from the others. Why did she dominate his thoughts while flirting with the others was just a game? He didn't understand it, but there was something different about her. Something that drew him to her. Somehow, it felt like she'd bring him out of this misery. She'd be his escape from this pathetic existence. He hoped it at least. He couldn't say for certain what she'd mean if anything. His life was fabrication after all. Even he couldn't say he knew who Devon Hayle truly was.
Adalia's mind had reached a calm place since her talk with the priest Barret several days prior. She mused over her situation as she walked through the streets of the holy capital. She had agreed to do some errands for the keeper of the inn she had been staying at. It seemed only right to chip in given she hadn't payed for her stay herself. Both the old priest and the inn keeper had her deepest gratitude.
That said, it was becoming clear that she couldn't stay in that place forever. She needed to make a decision and make one fast. As it was, she felt like she was getting closer. She was beginning to get a clearer grasp of what she was going to do. She was beginning to see that she simply didn't belong in her son's life. At the same time, she was beginning to see just how important he was to her.
She needed to establish contact with him at least once. She needed to confirm it to him that he had and would always have her love. After that, she'd return to Archerd. She'd join a convent and live the rest of her days in the service of God. She'd keep the boy in her thoughts and in her prayers and pray that he did the same. Maybe she'd write him on occasion if it was allowed. It sounded like a good plan. It sounded like it would allow everyone some happiness. She just needed to find Arnou.
"Arnou?" she started suddenly, as she stared blankly ahead, her mouth slightly agape. She hadn't expected to find him right there and then..
Well, actually, it wasn't her son she stared at, but merely his likeness. A large, beautifully rendered engraving hung framed on the wall of a rather beautiful building. On it, were three faces. One of them was the spitting image of Arnou. Adalia approached the engraving quickly to investigate. She stared at it hard for several moment. No matter how she looked, it looked exactly like Arnou.
"A beauty isn't it?" a voice started. Adalia turned to see a man who looked to be of merchant class admiring the engraving beside her. "The original plate was engraved by one of the best artists in Thayne in commemoration of the opera's latest show. Prints like this are hung up throughout town so every wealthy nobleman in all of Bogdona will see them."
"The opera?" Adalia started, a little surprised.
"That's right. Archerd Grand Opera Company's The Song of Hope," he said. "It's going to be quite the show from what I hear."
"These are the actors then?" Adalia asked, still looking at the one who looked like Arnou.
"That's right. Myrna Odell at the center and Lans Mallock to the right. Biggest stars the opera has," the man replied, giving a strong nod.
"What about the one to the left?" Adalia asked, pointing out the one who had drawn her curiosity.
"Ah, yeah. Some newcomer... I forget her name. Astrid, Estrid... something like that," the man said, shaking his head. "A real beauty from what I hear. Too bad she's playing a male part, I say."
"That's a woman then?" Adalia said, taken aback.
"Yeah. I know the costume makes it hard to tell," the merchant said, shaking his head. "But ain't no man I've ever seen have a face that beautiful."
Adalia felt a little embarrassed. Arnou definitely was a little feminine featured. He always had been. Still, mistaking some beautiful female celebrity for her son just felt strange. She had to laugh awkwardly at the mistake.
"Thank you, sir," she said. "The opera sounds like it would be lovely."
"Indeed," the merchant replied. "Though I don't reckon we'll ever know given the price on those tickets." He gave a long sigh and a few more glances at the display before walking off.
Adalia nodded. Something like an opera was definitely beyond a woman of meager means like herself. She gave another laugh, before turning and stepping away. After but a few steps, her path directly crossed with someone else. A girl. Adalia didn't recognize her at first.
"You..." she said. Just one word and it had contained bitterness, anguish and disgust. Adalia stiffened up, suddenly feeling threatened.
She studied the girl. She was young, thin, fit and had spiky black hair. She wore the armor of a low ranking paladin, but certainly didn't carry herself like any member of the corps Adalia had come across. Her eyes had a somewhat crazed look in them. It reminded Adalia of the look that so often inhabited Reeve's eyes. She backed up instinctively.
"W-who are you?" Adalia started with a quiver, not recognizing the dangerous girl.
"You don't even remember me then?" the girl started. "I suppose we did only meet once." She continued to step toward Adalia. There was hostility in her voice. "And yet you're the cause of everything. You are the reason it's broken..."
It was at that moment that Adalia placed the girl's face. As she recognized the girl, she understood at once why it took so long. The girl's countenance had become distorted from what it had been. Eyes that had been bright and carefree now burned with hatred and a slight but likely growing madness. The kindness in the girl's voice had gone to cruelty. It was almost as if she wasn't the same person.
"You're..." Adalia started, "You're that girl... Fawne. Arnou's..."
"You took him from me..." the girl said through a strained growl.
Adalia backed up even more, into the wall behind her, just a few feet from the engraving. She cowered fearful as she considered the meaning of the girls words. "Y-you don't mean... that... Arnou is... gone..."
"Oh, I wish," Fawne spoke with a snarl. "I could learn to live with that. He betrayed us. He betrayed me. All for you."
Adalia gasped. She couldn't believe it. She really meant something to Arnou? It was honestly a little hard to take. "I didn't-"
"Shut up!" Fawne finally raised her voice. "I don't want to hear anything from you!" Her voice fell back to a growl. "It's your detestable faith and the fear it propagates. It all needs to be eliminated."
Adalia felt cornered. She didn't know what to do or say to appease the younger woman. Instead she just gave a whimper. "Please, God have mercy."
"Oh? You think your God is going to save you?" Fawne gave a bitter laugh. She then slammed a powerful fist into Adalia's stomach. She was much stronger than she looked. The pain was at once intense. Adalia fell to her knees. "We'll see about that."
"Ugh..." Adalia groaned as she collapsed forward, her frail body giving out.
"What in the world?" she heard the girl's voice shortly after. "A-Arnou...?" Adalia was able to tilt her head enough to see Fawne staring at the opera engraving. "What does this mean?" she muttered.
The woman made nothing more out before her strength entirely left her and she blacked out from the pain.
A/N: End was a lot of fun writing again. This was a fun chapter in a lot of ways. Two of the three protagonists just weren't in focus here. Arnou didn't even appear in his segment. Eirwen's part had a lot of fun confrontations, and a little action, I thought. I decided to skip ahead a little there, skipping the two groups getting separated. It just seemed like the best way to do it. I like that it adds a little mystery (especially around Nira, who isn't present in either group). Wren's segment set up a ton of new plot points and contained a lot of meetings that will prove important. This tournament is needless to say important. Arnou's segment was the oddity I suppose. Three scenes, all of which are fairly small. Devon's reveal might be the most interesting moment; all these traps- felt right to have at least one reverse trap. And of course Fawne confronting and capturing Adalia will have major repercussions. I considered adding another scene by the way, but that wouldn't have included Arnou either