The city was on fire. And it wasn't Nick's fault.
The fire mage vaulted over an upturned cart, his two swords glowing in the twilight. The hunt had begun, and he would not relent until the prey was captured. His companions raced by him, leaping over the fiery remains of buildings.
"I'm going to seal him in!" Nick shouted, fire already trailing down his swords. He thrust them forward, and twin jets of flame rocketed out in front of the fleeing man. A wall of fire sprang up, twelve feet high and stretching from one wall to another. The man whirled about, several nearby crates rising up telekinetically.
"Somehow," a scarlet unicorn remarked as she darted past, "I don't think adding more fire is going to solve our problems!"
"Just get the false Pontiff!" Nick snapped.
A blur of auburn fur shot past him, and leapt at the man. It contorted in midair, the small, agile fox becoming a large tiger. The great cat landed on the man's chest, pinning him. Her large, sharp fangs were mere inches from his neck.
"Off me, foul beast!" the man spat. The tiger went flying as it was hit with a pulse of psychokinetic energy. It spiraled through the air, before contorting into a swallow and landed at Nick's side in fox form again.
"Oh, you've done it now," the young man snarled, his golden-flecked eyes glinting. "No one hits my sister and gets away with it." He leapt forward, his swords poised to strike. "Spark, to me!" A long, straight knife leapt into the air from its sheath on his waist, and Nick grabbed in his teeth in a dexterous, well-practiced maneuver. His hand slid down his gladius, grasping it on the round pommel and swinging it around.
Nick drove the tip of the sword into the man's wrist, pinning him to the ground. He spat the knife into his free hand, and leaned over the body. The man's mind was now clouded by pain, and he couldn't focus enough to blast Nick away.
The knife traced a circle on the false Pontiff's bloodstained cheek. "Oh, I'm going to have fun with you," Nick purred. "I'll make sure you never mislead the innocent ever again." He raised the knife, and prepared to plunge it deep into the man's right eye, gouging into his brain and killing him instantly.
The scarlet unicorn whinnied, and darted around behind the man, her coat glittering in the ever-shifting firelight. She lashed out at Nick with her hooves, driving him back. The young man recoiled. "Evara, what's wrong with you?"
"Control yourself, fool!" the unicorn shouted. "You can't go crazy again, we won't be able to stop you."
Nick wiped a rivulet of blood from the side of his mouth with the back of his hand. His nostrils flared at the smell of burnt material that clung to his riding leathers. "But Kita, and the people… and Kim said dead or alive…"
Evara shoved him back, her opalescent horn darting in front of his face. "Lucian has him in his sights. Pull back."
Nick retreated a few paces, and glanced at the top of one of the still-standing buildings. His companion stood there, the black headscarf that concealed his blind, milk-white eyes flapping in the wind. He held a bow that was the same color as obsidian, and it was drawn to his cheek. "Shadow sight?" Nick asked.
"Shadow sight," Evara replied. "Don't worry, he won't miss. See to the people. There are wounds that need to be seen to, and you might be the only pair of intact hands we have. And some need to be cauterized. Pull back."
Kita frisked about his ankles, and glanced up at him with deep brown eyes. Nick nodded to her, but glanced at the false Pontiff. "I just want to make sure business is concluded." He whistled up to the shadow mancer. "Let fly, Lucian!"
The blind young man nodded silently, and released the shaft. The bolt flew unerringly down into the trapped man's forehead, the shadow construct penetrating his skull and silencing his muffled screams. With a wave of Nick's hand, the fire wall disappeared, and he reclaimed his sword.
"I think you've tasted enough blood today, Inferno," he remarked as he wiped it clean with a rag streaked with caked dirt and old blood.
Nick slowly untied the bandage from the young girl's head. Kita, his adopted shape shifter sister, murmured soft words of reassurance to the child, who could be no older than five or six. The young man wiped away the last of the caked blood with a cool washcloth. He passed the child a honey cake, fresh from a baker's oven.
"All set. Now you go back to your mother, all right? And stay safe." The girl nodded, and ran off, her tattered skirt flapping behind her. Nick smiled at Kita. "Now, she was a brave one. Didn't whimper a bit. Unlike you, crybaby."
Kita scowled. "The burn water hurts."
"Alcohol," Nick corrected. Despite making leaps and bounds in the once-feral child's speech, her vocabulary was still sorely lacking. "It's disinfecting alcohol."
Kita shrugged. "'Kay."
"Why don't you go find Lucian?" Nick asked as the next patient in line stepped up. This man had half his torso wrapped in cloth bandages, only partly disguising several second-degree burns. As Kita scampered off, Nick leaned down and dabbed a fresh rag with alcohol. "This may sting quite a bit."
The man glanced down at his wound. "After this? It'll be nothing." Nick smiled wanly, and began to unravel the bandages and dab at the burns. The man winced, but glanced down at Nick. "You know, maybe those priests were wrong after all. You Reversal people don't seem all that bad."
Nick was silent for a time, and finished his treatment of the man's wound without saying a word. He passed him a vial of alcohol that the Reversal supply train had brought. "Use some of this whenever it starts to act up, and keep the bandages clean. Oh, and sir?
"The Reversal is just as capable of good or evil as any organization. We try to do what's right… and I'm glad you see it that way."
The man smiled. "Good lad." He folded up the bottle in a bit of cloth and shuffled away.
A Reversal medical aide came to relieve him at his station. Nick ambled away to a water barrel, and took a long drink from the supplied ladle. Then, he sank down onto a nearby supply crate and surveyed the remnants of Temperance, a minor city in what was once Church territory.
From the reports Nick had read, it was once a thriving commercial center, but after the fall of Vertalia, a man named Zantos had arrived, instating himself here as the new Pontiff. While Seithios Stonecrusher and Kimara Godhand, the joint commanders of the remnants of the Reversal army, and two of Nick's closest friends, had no problems with people still following the teachings of the Church of the Entity, Zantos had tried to reinstate the Church's militant policies with his own private army of mercenaries.
The "army" had begun attacking the people of Temperance when they resisted Zantos's more radical policies, and Kimara had been forced to take action. She had sent Nick, Lucian, Evara and Kita as part of a much larger force to try and stop Zantos, and the man had panicked when he saw the host massing on the plain near Temperance, despite it being a mere fraction of the size of the army that took Vertalia.
On an infiltration and scouting mission into the city, Nick and his comrades had tracked down the fleeing Pontiff. His mercenary guards had set fire to the nearby buildings in their clash, and Zantos had escaped in the confusion. Many people were hurt in the blaze, and more still in the collapse of infrastructure that followed. The Reversal was now helping to get help the denizens of the city bounce back.
Kita guided Lucian over to where Nick sat. Three dour-looking men and one scowling woman followed behind him, bound and handcuffed. They were flanked by a troop of armed guards. "Nick's here," the shapeshifter said.
"Ah, good. Can you take these captives to the command tent?" Lucian passed the rope to the captain of the troop, and sat next to Nick.
As the captive mercenaries passed by, one of the men spat at the shadow mancer's feet. "Curse you, Nightwalker."
Nick smiled as the prisoners faded from sight. "The new name is already spreading, eh?" In the intervening year between the battle at Vertalia and the present, three members of the Legendary Seven had changed their surname titles. Lucian had gone from Darksword to Nightwalker; Lexa had changed from Goldenhair to Dawnbringer, and Kim had made the change from Mindbender to Godhand just few months ago. Nick had not been in the Reversal main camp at the time, and had missed what was said to be quite a festival in honor of it.
Lucian smiled contentedly. "I should hope so. I like this one far more. I am not limited to just my sword, so I felt it never really captured my full essence."
"Right," Nick smirked. "As though your ego needed more inflating."
The shadow mancer fell quiet. "We'll be returning soon, won't we? Back to the main camp? And the Forest."
"Yes, I think so. We need to report to Kim and Seth, and I need to see to my Knights." Nick leaned back. "I think we can wait one or two days more, before we leave. I'll talk to Sin'rezo about it this evening."
It was not without some apprehension that Nick approached the massive green and silver hill that sprawled just outside of town. As he approached, the hill rose up a little, and a scaly, triangular head arched around. Oh, Nicotorex, the dragon Elitona rumbled. Do come in, Sin'rezo just got the water to a boil. She lifted her wing, revealing the Elvin warrior-scholar in the enclave her large, sinuous body made. He was leaning over an open fire, with a kettle on a spit. Nearby, a camp table was spread with several maps and reports.
"Ah, Lieutenant," the elf said with a smile. "Come in, come in. Here, take that stool. No, don't protest, you've been on your feet most of the day, and I've been here on my arse with all this paperwork. A little standing will do you good."
Nick obliged, and the commander of the Temperance operation pressed an earthenware mug of tea into his hand. "Sin'rezo… I am requesting leave for my band and I to report back to Generals Kimara and Seithios."
Sin'rezo scribbled something. "When do you plan to depart? And what will you need? If it can wait a few days, I have a few dispatches that I need to send."
The fire mage nodded. "Yes, we won't leave for at least a day or two."
"How much will you need in provisions, Lieutenant?"
"Oh, drop the title, Sin'rezo." Nick sighed. "We both know Kim only gave it to me for this mission so I would have free movement, and I could report straight to you. Anyway, we'll only take enough to last us for two days, to fill our packs. And a little money, so we can buy supplies when that runs out. It'll be easier to carry."
Sin'rezo nodded. "Will you be taking a force back with you, Nick?"
"No, just Lucian, myself, Kita, Evara, Havoc, and… Grimsbjorn."
Elitona shifted her wing slightly, allowing bit of a draft in. Good, and be off with him. That man makes my scales crawl.
Nick laid a hand on her flank. "Me either, Elitona. But Lucian is my partner, and Grimsbjorn will only respond to him. He's an asset in this war, and we need him."
Sin'rezo flipped a leather book closed. "My force will only be here for another two weeks, at most. But from what I've heard, Nick, the other members of the Seven are gathering back at camp. Anna is moving her fleet, and Zephyr's command has been seen flying westward. When was the last time you were all gathered in one place?"
"About a week after the battle," Nick confessed. "We've all had to go our separate ways."
Sin'rezo smiled. "I'll make sure you have the reports by the time you leave."
Lucian rubbed down the flank of the black charger next to him. "Easy there, Evara. You're very tense."
"I'm over here," the unicorn quipped. "That's Havoc."
Lucian blinked. "Ah. Yes. Of course. Kita, where are you?" The shape shifter, in the form of a gray horse, nudged him, and he tracked down her flank to find the reins and saddle. With a little less grace than he would have liked, he hauled himself onto her back. A tall man with dark, matted hair and a surprisingly well-trimmed beard swung up onto Havoc without so much as a breath of exertion.
Nick approached with a leather bag slung over his shoulder. He picked up his pack and fastened it to Evara's saddle, making a small backrest for himself in the process. "The reports are set, I have our clearance papers, and everyone else seems ready to go. So… shall we be off?"
Lucian nodded. "Grimsbjorn, are you quite ready?"
The once-Lord of Ginúnford muttered something intelligible, and Nick was willing to take it as a yes. He whistled up at the dragon rider patrol that swooped by overhead, and gave a salute. Three of the riders caught the gesture and returned it, and the dragons roared in farewell. With one last glance back at Temperance, Nick nudged his heels gently into Evara's flanks. The trio of riders galloped off down the long dirt road, leaving behind only a cloud of dust.
They rode from early morning to just before the sun dipped below the western horizon. The land rolled in gently sloping hills and wide-open plains for miles around. Nick ignited a bundle of firewood they had brought with them, and got out the salted pork they would heat for their evening meal.
They heated them on a grate suspended over the fire pit, and eagerly devoured it. Grimsbjorn quickly dropped off to sleep, as was his wont. He never engaged anyone in conversation, and it was rare he said more than a few sentences a week.
Kita curled up on Nick's lap, in the shape of a fox. The fire mage absently scratched behind his adopted sister's ears. Lucian stared with sightless eyes across the dying embers. "It will be strange, having everyone together again."
"I know," Nick replied softly. "After the battle, everything changed. The whole world seems to have gone to pieces. Michael's on our side, Grimsbjorn too. The Church is all but gone, Kim and Seithios are generals. Necro is… well, he's…"
"What about him?"
Nick couldn't very well tell Lucian that Necro, the enigmatic bard who had accompanied them through so much was actually the shadow mancer's brother Rescalo, long thought to be dead, and the High King of Rinshonan, capitol of Ureono. "He's…surely you've noticed? He hardly ever smiles anymore."
"Nick, I have a hard time noticing anything, remember?" Lucian pointed at his headscarf. "Seriously, sometimes I think you do this just to annoy me." He smirked. "Oh! You'll get to see Anna for the first time in a while."
Nick was infinitely glad Lucian couldn't see the color flush into his face. "I-It's only been two months." Yes, two months since Anna had… propositioned him. "We worked together to break up that pirate ring on the northern coast."
"Yes, and left me back at camp for weeks, cooling my heels. How could I forget?"
"Lucian, is it strange that I'm afraid to go back to camp?" The fire mage made a quick sound to forestall comment. "I mean, this past year, everything's changed. It's all right when I'm on the trail with you, but when I'm around other people?" Nick cradled his head in his hands, knowing Lucian couldn't see his anguish. "I feel so different. Like, the whole world keeps moving on around me, but I'm stuck in that one moment, that one, terrible moment." A tear burned in his eye. "When Flayme died."
Lucian slowly and carefully made his way around the fire, and gently laid his hand on Nick's. "No, it's not like that at all."
Nick sighed, and stared into the shifting flames. "It's like there's this snake, curling around in my brain. I don't know what to do about it. There are some moments when I'm like me, and others when I'm like the demon, and still more when… I don't know. There's a third thing there, and it's sort of halfway in between."
"Nick, a very long time ago, you told me something. You said that I was just running and hiding from the truth. And that no matter how far gone I was," the shadow mancer gave a small smile, "you would always be there to bring me back. And I'm going to do the same for you. Because you're my best friend." Nick couldn't help but return Lucian's smile, even though the other young man would never see it.
Nick nearly fell out of Evara's saddle in surprise. He whirled to look at Grimsbjorn. "Gods, did you just talk?"
The man mutely pointed up through the trees of the small forest they rode through. Sure enough, there was indeed an eagle soaring high in the clear blue expanse of the sky. "I like birds," was all Grimsbjorn said for the rest of the day, though he spent the rest of their time traveling that day scanning the skies for them.
The plains of western Crinsharlan rolled on and on, interrupted only by the ruins of the city of Patience on the far northeastern horizon. Kita snorted out a breath as she glanced over, and Evara nodded. "That place has some serious dark thoughts around it."
Lucian clicked his tongue. "We're passing Patience, correct? Isn't that where they did human sacrifices?"
"Until Ragnar and Theo rained hell on them, yes," Nick replied, smiling at the thought of the two Lords. Perhaps soon they would meet them again. Both were wise, powerful men, and always seemed to Nick to be pillars of strength and certainty in a strange chaotic world.
The long golden grasses swayed around them like dancers, and after a time, Nick swung out of Evara's saddle to sashay with them, in the way his old mentor Aratis had taught him. The female fire mage had taken him under her wing years ago, and taught him how to fight not just with power, but also with lithe grace and speed. Ever since then, whenever he felt the call to dance, his feet had always found a melody for his mind.
The horses slowed their gait to rest for a time, and allowed Nick to keep up. The young man occasionally felt Grimsbjorn's quizzical eye on him, but ignored the dark older man resolutely. His mind was elsewhere, dancing among the cloud capped mountain peaks of the eastern part of the continent and over the sweeping desert sands of Sestrazana. They soon stopped at a village to resupply, and let their horses rest. In the small public square, Kita scampered around, chasing sparrows. Nick noted that Grimsbjorn was breaking off pieces of the loaf of bread he was eating and feeding them to the tiny birds.
After two hours of rest, they again set out on their unmarked trail, racing along to reunite with their comrades. On the third day of travel, another company of riders was spotted on the horizon. They carried a banner marked with the new Reversal emblem, three interlocking gold circles on a field of red. Nick whistled to them, and Evara galloped out to meet the emissary they sent.
"Delphia!" Nick cried as soon as he could make her out.
The clairvoyant young woman smiled, and her unicorn mount greeted Evara in kind. "I had a vision I would find you out here. Are you finally coming back?" The ruby circlet on her brow glinted in the sunlight, and her dark hair was done up in an intricate braid down her back.
"Yes," Nick replied. "It's time for the Seven to meet again."
With a cry of happiness, Delphia swung off her unicorn and embraced Nick. "We've all been missing you so much! You came and went so quickly, we've hardly had time to catch up!"
"We?" Nick glanced over his shoulder as Lucian and Grimsbjorn rode up behind him.
"Well, the other Unicorn Knights and I of course!" Delphia whistled, and the other three riders charged down the hill. Tempora and Spacio nearly fell off their unicorns trying to reach him, laughing and hugging him until he gently pushed them away.
Nick bowed low to the fourth rider, and kissed her hand. Yor'thalo was an elf from the same order of warrior-scholars as Sin'rezo, and though Nick outranked her in the context of the Unicorn Knights, a captain to her lieutenant, she possessed a degree of wisdom that Nick would always defer to.
"Seeing you good again is," she said in the broken manner of the elves. Of the race, only a select few had a real grasp of the human tongue, and many tried to use the plasticity of the word order in the Elvin language in the Human Common Tongue.
"And I you," Nick replied. Though the elves sometimes made very little sense, he had a fair grasp of what they were saying. And deciphering their strange speech was far easier than learning Elvish. "It's good to see all of you."
Lucian finished feeling the faces of each of the four riders, confirming their identities for himself. "Why did you all come this far? Surely, we could have found our way on our own. It's hard to miss the Flower Forest."
Delphia smiled. "We just wanted to be the first ones to welcome you home. We've all been waiting a long time for this." She swung back up onto her unicorn. "So, brave heroes… and Grimsbjorn. Would you permit us to be your honor guard on your triumphant return home?"
Evara pranced on her hind legs. "Ooh! That sounds like a lot of fun!"
Nick nodded and mounted up in a graceful, practiced motion. "It would be my pleasure. Lead on, my friends!"
With a cry, Delphia spurred her mount to motion, and the company barreled across the plains, into the rising sun, and finally, finally, home.
A/N: If there are words to be said, I do not have them. Let it simply be understood, beyond all else, that the end of the Blazing Heart Saga has begun! As always, enjoy.