Chapter 28 – Letters Before the Storm

On the fields of Tessevorst, a haunting melody could be heard. The melody wound through the blood soaked battle, soft as the touch of moonlight on the shadowed foliage. Nixia's sweet, pining music floated over countless fallen One Republic soldiers, coaxing them back to unlife. As she plucked at the strings on her instrument, the dead roused from their slumber, taking up their fallen weapons to do the bidding of their new mistress.

But one solitary silhouette stood apart from the others, moving with a distinctive grace towards the fallen princess. Nixia's music stilled and she set her instrument aside, hardly daring to believe her eyes as she recognized her master.

"You're back!" cried Nixia, running over to embrace Wan Ting. "Are you hurt?"

The magician genius patted her head affectionately. "Illexmann's final attack was not meant to harm, but rather to hold me. Rather brilliant, and well suited to his talents. A place of absolute safety from which there is no egress."

"But how did you survive? How did you escape?" Nixia asked. "We searched and waited for you, there was no trace."

"You should know a magician never reveals his tricks. It would only weaken him."

"You can tell me," suggested Nixia coyly, fingering Wan Ting's cheek. "It might come in useful one day."

"I find our conversation more exciting if we keep our secrets. I want updates, Nixia," Wan Ting said. "What happened while I was away?"

Nixia filled Wan Ting with the details of the past three days. "With Tenskwa Taga and you gone, I had no idea if we could hold out against the One Republic. But Richard Gear and Vincent were simply incredible in that last battle."

"Vincent?" Wan Ting asked, raising an eyebrow. "How... since when is he on our side?"

"We found him wounded. Richard and I talked him over to our side. He's been a great help."

"He's dangerous. Where is he now?"

"You aren't going to kill him, are you?" Nixia asked, grabbing on to Wan Ting's sleeves.

"I'm only doing what needs to be done. His team is even more dangerous than the One Republic. Look how much Illexmann inconvenienced me. I had to leave your side for three days."

Nixia pouted and clung to the magician genius tighter. "Isn't there another way? He must have some use to us yet. Weren't you friends with his father?"

"Friend is such a strong word." The ghost of a smile flickered on Wan Ting's lips. "But no, the Fool has gotten to him, as has Illexmann. Even without their influence, he's probably as unpredictable as his father. Do you want to risk him taking your chances at the throne?"

"I just want everything," said Nixia. "Surely you can do that for me? We've beaten my brother. The way is clear to the Reicheart. And you're back, nothing can stop us now."

Wan Ting touched Nixia's cheek. "I love how you are the only who can make me do things I'll regret. I must stay hidden then, at least until the Reicheart falls. If Vincent finds me, he'll definitely kill himself trying to defeat me."

"The real battle lies ahead," Wan Ting said. "You will lay siege to the capital, force King Righteous' hand. When he is desperate, he will reveal the Armageddon Scrolls, and I will be there to take their power. Other opportunists are doubtlessly waiting in the wings for this moment, and I have to be there to claim it. There are Deathly Powers remaining that have yet to reveal themselves."

"Take hold of your victory, Nixia," Wan Ting said. "You must stay with the army. The One Republic is not defeated just yet. They should still be able to muster a sizeable defence, especially of their capital city. I am counting on you to break through the gates. You won't disappoint me, will you?"

Nixia favored Wan Ting with a bright smile. "You know I never do."

"Psst, Vincent," Will hissed. "Wake up!"

"I wasn't sleeping," muttered Vincent.

"Yeah, sure. And drooling on me is your primary source of entertainment. I get it."

Vincent ran a hand through matted hair. The necromancer's back rested firmly against Eva's body. The zombie dragon's bulk reassured him. "Will, this had better be important."

"Hush, big brother's calling out to us."

Vincent massaged his neck, absentmindedly tickling Will in the process. "The Fool's back. Mind if I ask how he is talking to you?"

"We're brothers. We share a mental bond. Oh, he has good news! He ate the angel, and has taken angel powers."

The necromancer's eyes widened. "That's two Deathly Powers the Fool has eaten now. What kind of new abilities does he have?"

Will smacked his lips obscenely. "We'll find out soon enough. Looks like we have to be a little sneaky right now though. We're keeping dangerous company right now, and if they found out we're still in contact with the Fool, things wouldn't end well for us."

"Ugh, I can hear the Fool's giggle even when he is not in the room. What's the plan?"

"First off, the Fool needs to know. Are you still his friend, or are you now part of a new gang?"

"Well, why can't we all be friends?" asked Vincent sardonically.

"This is a serious question!"

"Fine. I don't harbour any loyalty to my new companions, if that's what you're asking."

"The Fool says not to help them in the upcoming battle. Just watch, and wait."

"And why is that?"

"When both sides are distracted, we are to make a break for the Armageddon Scrolls together. So hold back the zombie dragons tomorrow, and watch for the Fool's signal."

~Vincent, I don't think it's wise of us to follow the Fool's orders.~ Eva said.

"Stay out of this, lady," hissed Will.

"No," Vincent said. "I'm sorry Eva. Will did not mean to interrupt. Go on."

~We have options now. Nixia and Richard make powerful allies. Their motives are less murky than the Fool's, and Nixia seems to like you. We contributed to the victory at the Tessevorst. With them, we are equals.~

"Yes, but the Fool is stronger than ever. He built this body of mine. He can take it away."

Eva's glowing eyes flickered, reading her son's indecision. ~Don't forget the main reason we were dragged in to this war. You were searching for the strength to stay free, and to keep your loved ones safe.

"Do you have to bring up Sasha every time, mother? I failed her, I get it. You don't need to rub it in."

~We're playing games with forces much stronger than we are. We need to be very careful.~

"What of my father's final request? I was destined to kill the strongest necromancer in the Common Lands. The Fool offers me my only chance at taking down Wan Ting."

~But you are your own son, Vincent. And so you are free to decide if the promises you made to yourself are still relevant.~

Vincent punched his forehead. "Of course. I almost forgot."

~Vincent, you are the Aspect of Freedom. Nothing can bind you unless you will it. You do not need to make a decision yet. At least promise me you'll think on it.~

Prince Charming's room needed no artificial illumination. The prince himself shone brighter than any field lantern. The prince sat at a wooden desk, fingering a dry cup of spent leaves, all that remained of his tea.

"I'm angry," the prince declared, gazing into the distance before him. "How could you all place your life in my hands so carelessly? You've pushed on me a responsibility I cannot accept. My life was my own to lose, and certainly not worth the sacrifices of an entire army to bring back."

"I'm ashamed. This power disgusts me." The prince stared blankly at Redemption, the hooked swords which stood unsheathed before him. The blades seemed to glower with simmering reproach. "No one man should hold himself above all the others. How could I ever consider myself above any one of my soldiers?"

"I wanted power to give hope. Instead I am forced to use one that takes." The prince crushed the clay cup, grinding it to fragments in his closed fist. "What terrible strength feeds on the weak as a source of strength? My very existence is a mockery of everything I ever stood for."

"I know you loved me, Eric," Prince Charming said. "I know you gave yourself willingly. I know the others do. I can't accept it. I won't accept the blood of so many on my hands. I am not worthy. You can call me weak if you like."

The prince's eyes flickered with a vision only he could witness. "I know you believe in me. I don't think you deserve to spend your life on it. I understand I'm the best chance the One Republic has. I just don't feel it should have happened this way. We should have won this battle together."

~But we are together.~ Eric said. ~I live on, my hope lives on in you.~

"Of course you live on in me. I feel you in every breath I take. Not just you, but every citizen of Ehrenfeld, every soldier that has fallen in battle, since the day I was reborn. Your souls are heavy."

~Together we are stronger. We can carry the burden together.~

"Please," begged Prince Charming. "I need to think."

The prince sat silently for a few minutes, absentmindedly reaching for a second cup.

"I've been so careless with my life," Prince Charming whispered at last. "I didn't realise how many people were counting on me. How many still do. I am still the general of the One Republic. My responsibilities are unchanged. Even if I must become a monster. Even if the blood of those I love must stain my hands, must become the instrument through which my enemies are defeated."

Sensing his sudden resolve, the swords sprang into his open hands. Redemption was in his grasp. "This war is my responsibility! No one else shall bear my burden. I will fight for the One Republic. I will do what I must."

Prince Charming strode out into the impromptu war room. All eyes turned to him, their facial expressions tense.

"Thank you for keeping the plans afloat while I was... clearing my head. I trust we've started on a plan to defend against Nixia?"

Sensing the resolve in the prince's voice, the war council breathed a collective sigh of relief.

"We're gathering every available citizen who possesses the will to fight," Jacob reported. "This is the final push. I'm glad you're back, Charming. Honestly, there wasn't a single scenario we could think up where you and victory didn't come together."

"I entrust the gathering of our forces to you, Jacob. What of the enemy disposition?"

"Dire," said Boris. "Somnambulists report that Nixia is raising the dead from the Republican army. With some of King Righteous's former soldiers joining her willingly... It's complicated, and there's some flux to their numbers, but it's quite possible that they're stronger than ever."

"I'm never expected good news there anyway," muttered Charming. "What of the terrain? Is there a defensible location we can stage our battle?"

"The river Danzig runs thirty miles east of here," Jacob continued. "It's nowhere near its typical strength in the heat of summer, but it will serve as a natural barrier against the undead.

"With all due respect, people," said Prince Charming. "Won't it be better for us to defend within the Reicheart itself?"

"Unfortunately, King Righteous still commands at the Reicheart. Reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. His loyalists hold the city."

"There's no way for us to parley then, even against a mutual threat?" Prince Charming asked.

"Your brother has doubled down on his vendetta. He sees you as the single greatest threat to his throne. Not even the undead threat will sway him. He will not allow you to enter the Reicheart."

"Our duty is to the people, if not the king. Let us turn back the undead threat the best we can."

The prince took a deep breath. "Funny, I never would have believed the three of us would ever turn upon each other. This is going to be one hell of a family reunion."

"We've drawn a map," suggested Kalpo. "I'm afraid it isn't pretty."

A contour map of the battleground was spread out on the table. To the north, the forbidding defenses of the Reicheart loomed, manned by King Righteous's loyalist region. Little wood chips represented the gathering soldiers available to Prince Charming, scattered on the north end of the river. To the south, an enveloping green mass represented the Nixia's undead army.

"Like insects caught between hammer and anvil."