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Wednesday, September 19, 2018



It was a nice day on the planet Earth, sunny, cool, and with a slight breeze that made the leaves sing and dance for the people around them. People were walking across overgrown concrete structures from the past, heading towards the Rhine. They would swim, and picnic, and be happy. Others went to work, forging horseshoes or planting crops. Still others lazily traipsed over to the outdoors school. No one really cared who attended, it was more a way to get friends together and start romances. Real students learned at the colleges: The War College, the Wind College, or the University.
  He had attended one of those colleges, it was there that he'd first met the prince. The wild, unkempt, brown haired, blue eyed, tan skinned man-- who called himself Lars-- remembered. He had the confident look that only scholars or wizards wore, strangely bereft of the usual arrogant sneer. Most wizards looked down upon the rest of the people, Lars didn't really care. He was an athletic man, well muscled but not bulging with them. Lars had Perigon to thank for that, and thank him he did. Lars's other skill had a different person to thank for. He still blushed to think of her. To quickly divert his mind Lars recalled a spell and recited it a few times in his mind. Speaking the words of magic, a crystal ball with whirling snow flakes appeared in his glowing hand. Lars looked at it for a few moments, smiling, then closed his hand. The glass sphere turned to smoke and slowly rose into the air. A slight breeze blew in from the window, wafting part of the smoking tendril away from the rest and to the side.
  Lars had been sitting in the room for two hours. It was plush, fitting for the King's castle, with goose-feather pillows covered by velvet and silk. A couch ten times as comfortable as a regular bed, soft and inviting. In truth Lars hadn't slept in a while, he'd simply forgotten that he needed to. Still, it would not do to offend the courtesy of the king by going to sleep, even if he was the third greatest wizard in the kingdom. Third was the magic number, Lars was truly happy to be there. Any higher and he couldn't have been spared to undertake the mission. If the mission failed, then both kingdoms would collapse against the elements of fire and earth. It was somewhat ironic, then, that the best of the best were not here to insure its success. That was because if they weren't out there fighting then the kingdoms would collapse anyway long before the alignment would occur.
  Yes, a phenomenal event which happens only once in eons, the deliverance of the Kingdoms of Water and Wind. For without it they were surely doomed. But with it, with it there was still hope. For when Neptune, Uranus, and Earth were all set in a straight line, then both Kingdoms’ magic would be at its apex. Even now both Kingdoms' magic was waxing. Lars felt his patron planet pulse new blood into him. Yes, Uranus, the great green planet tilted 90 degrees on its axis and housing beautiful rings and many moons. It was powerful, very powerful, but so utterly far away. Like sunlight, the magic usually flew into empty space, only the barest amount gathered into the Earth and used by the Wind mages. That was why the Earthen Empire, its patron planet the mighty Jupiter, Colossus of the system, was slowly crushing the life out of the Kingdom of Wind. Their allies, the Kingdom of Fire, were by far the most powerful. Their patron planet had no moons, and wasn't even the size of the Earth. Venus, though, was so close to Earth that it virtually basked in its magic. The element of fire had by far more power than any other, except for the occasional times that Earth waxed strongest. One thing was for sure, though, if the elements of Wind and Water could not somehow be combined, then they would be consumed by their more powerful cousins and forgotten forever.

   "The king will see you now," a page nervously stated. People usually vented all their frustration from waiting on the poor boy, and Lars, being a powerful wizard and all, would probably be really frustrated. As Lars rose from his chair and picked up his staff, the page virtually cringed in fear. Lars softly spoke, “Thank you," and with a swish of robes he was gone.
  Lars was now inside the Throne room, or Grand Audience Chamber, or Amphitheater, considering whom you asked. Most people would look around in awe at all the finery and richness, but Lars had already seen it enough and he had pressing business at hand. "My liege." Lars bowed dutifully to the king, head down to the forward knee and resting there for a second. Then the wizard rose to his feet and waited for someone to tell him what was happening.
  "Lars, you've been summoned here to help protect the prince on his arduous journey to the eternal city of Spa. First, though, you will travel across the Atlantic upon the Cherry Blossom, to the port of Philadelphia and then travel to Gettysburg, where Princess Gale awaits you and your party. War is breaking out and you are the most qualified person we can spare, I do pray you will accept this task."
  "I will, my liege. But tell me again, you hope to reach Spa?" Lars asked incredulously.
  "I know it sounds desperate, but it's the only way. We have learned the location of the first key so we can finally begin. The mission was planned to begin years ago, but it was delayed. Now time is of the essence, the world knows that the day of judgment approaches. Our survival depends entirely on the success of this mission!" The king stressed. He was a good king, one who stood upon the crossroads of annihilation and survival and kept his head. "Both this prince and that princess must survive, no other match will be satisfactory. They have to marry on the altar on the day of alignment with true love, otherwise, we all die!" The king stated hotly. All dead, women, children, the blacksmith, the carpenter, all. . .Lars shook his head. He would do whatever it took to protect the prince. Lars and Gust were best friends, he would not let the prince die. For if he died, all died.
  "Father, when shall we begin?" The Prince bravely asked. He was truly brave; Gust would not fail his kingdom, not until his heart beat for the last time.
"Supplies, equipment, and such are being loaded on now. By morning tomorrow the Cherry Blossom shall be ready to set sail. Herkam, an armsmaster," the king added for Lars's benefit, "shall also be there to protect and guide the prince. His wilderness skills, pathfinding abilities, and such will be of great need for the two of you." Lars internally winced. The king was right; Lars had no idea how to live in the wild. How to hunt and build lean-to's and navigate a mountain or make a fire, all of it was beyond him. "Sire, I thank you for your orders and promise to use my full abilities to accomplish this task. We shall find Spa and protect both the prince and the princess, or die trying!"
  "You are dismissed, great wizard. Be sure to be at the harbour on 6 o'clock sharp. I give your journey my blessing and good wishes, for whatever that is worth in this day and age." With that Lars thought about walking away, but instead rehearsed a teleportation spell. Wind was a magic of speed and movement, teleportation was natural to it. Softly speaking the words of magic Lars ceased to exist for a few strange moments and then became anew in his lodge. It was time to sleep anyway. First, though, Lars would have to speak with his apprentice. No point in leaving him without a word. A strange lad, that Vistan, strange and admittedly scary. He was always gentle, even after being shunned by all the colleges and wizards, despite his great potential, simply for being a bastard. But a reservoir of power seemed to radiate from him, an untapped source of skill that would make him the greatest archmage that ever lived. Lars regretted that he wouldn't be able to teach him anymore; surely another wizard would pick up where he left off? Lars would make sure someone accepted him, but first he had to bid goodbye. Murmuring the words of magic Lars left the material plane once more to reappear at whatever site Vistan happened to be.
  As it happened Vistan was relaxing under a tall oak on a hill overlooking the beautiful Rhine. He'd been scribbling down notes on a notebook, using one of the precious ink pens instead of a quill. Noticing the wave of magic, Vistan turned to see his master, the third greatest wizard in the Kingdom of Wind. Remembering with disgust, Vistan was rumoured to be the bastard son of the second greatest, Uranus the Chosen One. Both Lars and Vistan were wearing the green robes of the wind magi, Lars because he had just met the king and Vistan because he always wore them. "Hello, Lars. What brings you here?" Vistan asked casually, his gaze wandering to the beautiful river below.
  "I'm sorry to say that I'm leaving on a very important mission to save the kingdom and will probably never see you again. Actually, I'll probably be dead very shortly, but that doesn't really matter. The point is that I won't be here to train you anymore and so I've decided to assign you to Zephyr." Vistan took it all calmly, as Lars knew he would. One could say the sky was falling or the world was turning inside out and Vistan would remain calm.
  "Zephyr didn't train me before, why do you think he will now?"
  "Because I'll order him to." Lars said, casually confident that his word was law.
  "I don't want to train under Zephyr. I want to train under you. You're the one who brought me in when all the others denied me, you're the one who became my father while my true one gave me up."
  "This childish infatuation can not be tolerated. I'm leaving tomorrow and there's no possible way you could remain my apprentice."
  "I could come with you! I could help save the kingdom! You could keep training me and I would devote my magic to your cause."
  "You'd die." Lars flatly stated.
  "Your point being. . .?" Vistan calmly stated, his green eyes flashing. Under his robe, twin emeralds in a sea of darkness. Eyes as green as the clouds of Uranus, with power buried deep inside that would one day fulfill a legend. Fulfill a legend if he didn't get himself killed. "You have a greater purpose in life. You must become the archmage and save the world."
  "But you're saving the world! The only way I could fulfill my destiny would be to help you! In which case I can't die as long as I'm saving the world with you." Lars and Vistan stared at each other in silence. Lars was waiting for the smallest glimmer of hesitation, the tiniest motion of fear. But the boy’s eyes never left his. They were actually staring his down.
  "Fine, come along. I'm glad to have you with me. The Cherry Blossom will be in the harbour at 6 o'clock sharp. I don't suppose there's anything wrong with taking you with me." Vistan pulled back his hood, revealing his boyish face of only sixteen years, his red hair and slight body, and his strange, piercing green eyes that shone with happiness and gratitude.

  Lars looked at that eager face, and sighed. Vistan was learning faster than any other recorded mage in history. If he hadn't started so late then he would already be a distinguished wizard. It was obvious that this was the Chosen One, his father was only a means to reach Uranus's goal. Uranus also had these eyes, though they were darker, more moody, swirling, mysterious. These were like pillars of green flame burning so bright you could hardly look straight at them. Lars caught himself wondering once more who his mother had been. Vistan swears he doesn't know, but there's no other way he could have survived. Orphans were not welcome in the Kingdom of Wind.
  But here he was, sixteen years old and ready, even eager to prove himself to his patron planet. Lars wondered if the King had wanted this kept secret, probably, so enemy spies and such wouldn't be able to tell the other elemental powers and thus martial a huge army to sink the ship and be done with it. Surely Vistan could be trusted, though. He wouldn't go tell all his friends that he was going on an adventure, Vistan wasn't like that. Lars turned and walked down the hill towards the city, wanting time to think. Vistan was still in need of training, and since most wizards were heading off to war there wouldn't be much left to train Vistan. Lars might need assistance on some spells that only Vistan could give. Also, it seemed to Lars that the more men the better the chances that this would succeed. To a point, if they began marching around with an army at their heels the other Kingdom would swoop down upon them and crush them all. But a large party of maybe twenty warriors seemed a lot more secure than what they were starting off with. The king might trust the two companions of the prince, but Lars didn't trust himself. The Armsmasters were commanders of the Lehrer division, elite trainers of the entire army. One would think that, with the coming war, the Armsmasters would be needed now more than any other time. The same would go for powerful wizards, though. The third greatest wind mage in the world thought gloomily as he entered the city of Bann.

  Vistan breathed in as deep as he could, taking in the salty sea air. The harbour was completely magical in its foundation. Bann had no adjacent sea, but the Archmage had easily dealt with that by making one. Starting a little west from the beginning of Denmark, the Archmage had summoned huge winds to sweep away the ground. After an evacuation of the surrounding areas, great vortexes, funnels of ultra-fast winds followed a plotted course under careful control of the archmage. Huge, twisting columns of dirt and debris colored the sky, giving mass and form to the air that swept it from the ground. Great boulders that would have taken days to dig out from the earth were plucked from the ground as easily as delicate flowers. Great streaks of lightning under close guidance of the archmage disintegrated any stubborn trees that withstood the power of the high-speed winds. After the storms had passed through, large teams of quarry convicts, peasants, and other drivel went in with pick and shovel to finish the job. Great boulders were cast aside by hundreds of pulleys and workers, mounds of earth were leveled for the water to enter. After a full year of such work, a bleeding gash across the land was proudly finished and the sea rushed to fill its new home. Only an Archmage could possibly accomplish such a monumental feat, and even then he required large periods of rest and recuperation. Magic didn't come free, as Vistan had learned the painfully hard way; it required energy--mental, physical, and spiritual. It took years of practice to heighten that energy. Each spell sapped away a certain amount every time you cast it, and the more powerful ones required so much energy that young wizards such as him would die trying to cast them. There were three steps to magic mastery: First you have to learn what the spell is and how to cast it. Next you had to practice it until you really had the ability, instead of just knowing how to acquire it. Last you had to gain the power necessary to cast it.
  But the harsh songs of the seabirds, lap of the waves, gentle groaning and creaking of the ships, and the salty sea breeze all wanted to put magic out of his thoughts. There was the Cherry Blossom, its image seeming ghost-like and ethereal in the pre-dawn light. Vistan summoned a magical creature of more energy than form, and quickly ascertained the time before banishing it. It was still fifteen minutes till. Vistan paced back and forth across the dock, liking the sound of booted feet upon wood. Where were the others? Surely they wouldn't wait until six o'clock exactly to show up? Oh well, Vistan forced himself to sit down and watch the sun rise in the distant east.
  At the chime of six, Lars spoke the words of magic and flew like the wind to the deck of the prince's ship. He turned to see his apprentice sigh and shake out his green robes. The young boy rose and began to walk towards the plank when he was cut off by a large, burly warrior with an impressive set of scars and a face like a rock. The large man wore a sword strapped to his waist and almost seemed itching to draw it. That would be Herkam, then. Vistan scowled underneath the shadowed protection of his hood and waited for the armsmaster to reach the ship. Then he began to board once more.
  Herkam turned around and barred the way, "This ship belongs to the prince and is undertaking a special voyage, you'll have to find passage on a different one."
  Lars stood up and addressed the armsmaster, “It’s all right, Herkam, that's my apprentice."
  "The king said nothing about your apprentice coming," Herkam noted suspiciously.
  "That's because he didn't know he was. But I see no harm in allowing the young boy to continue his studies while we move."
  "I do! This is a secret mission, not a school!" Vistan had waited calmly throughout the argument, aware that his age put him at a disadvantage no matter what he said. Younger people simply weren't allowed to talk back, no matter how good their import in the situation. But now he seemed to straighten out in anger and began a scathing retort--one that no one would ever hear, thankfully.
  "Gentlemen, please. I'll gladly accept another hand if that is Lars' wish. Lars is my friend, my faithful warrior, and we can trust his judgment." Gust, Prince of the Kingdom of Wind, said as he strode aboard, brushing by the young apprentice and putting a placating hand on the armsmaster's shoulder. People said that Gust's voice could soothe the most savage beast or most angered mob, Lars was beginning to believe in it. "We need everyone we can spare, and Lars might need assistance on some of his spells. Besides, look at his eyes!" Herkam gazed accordingly at the smoldering apprentice, and was almost hypnotized by those twin emerald beams that seemed to cut through armour and flesh to pierce your heart. Those eyes were twin reflections of Uranus itself! Gust whispered, “Remember the legend!" with a stressed voice.
  Herkam remembered, and he stepped aside to let the two almost equally distinguished people to enter the keening hulk of the Cherry Blossom. A flower that would soon wilt upon the violent seas.

1.The Journey Begins
  As the morning haze lifted from the canal, the Cherry Blossom proudly unfurled its crimson sails. Aided by a simple wind spell, the ship made excellent time, streaking through the water towards the northern sea. Lars had absolutely no idea how the ship worked, with so many different ropes, sails, and contraptions that Lars decided to just stay out of the way. The bright red sails proudly displayed a flowering rose with a cherry on top. A truly nice picture.
  "Well, at least it doesn't advertise where we come from." Herkam grudgingly admitted.
  "Lighten up. The prince will be perfectly safe during the voyage. Our biggest worries should be sea sickness and scurvy."
  "We've got plenty of oranges and lemons. And everyone here, except maybe your boy, has had experience on ships."
  "In that case, we've nothing to worry about at all." Lars cheerily stated.
  "We'll see. I've heard of water creatures, even pure Elementals, inhabiting the ocean and attacking ships. Leviathans, Tritons, Megalodons, and Krakens are but a few huge creatures."
  "You needn't worry as long as I'm on board, my magic can deal with just about anything short of the King of Fire. Though wind and water usually aren't that hostile towards each other, I'm sure I can at least protect the ship from any harm."
  "Good. We're all counting on you, then. All of us." Herkam walked away to the prow of the ship, trying to see the distant ocean ahead. Lars was a bit miffed at this. He needn't be reminded of his duty, especially by a stuck up, muscle bound, domineering guy like him. Still, it was a good idea to stay alert, even if they weren't even outside the kingdom yet. Any number of wild beasts could attack them if they were on land, but as it was they were quite safe. The mundane, artificiality of the canal (even if it was constructed by magic) sterilized the power of Neptune, so that no magical creatures inhabited the canal. Nothing natural that could damage the ship could fit into the canal, so as long as they were in it they were completely safe. Outside, though, any number of things could happen. Lars was about to cast another windblast spell to propel the ship onwards, but noticed that his green-robed assistant was handling it easily. I've taught him well. Lars reminisced. Pray it will be enough to keep him alive.
  With that Lars decided to retire to his cabin and use the rest of the day studying his magic. Some particularly destructive spells he'd learned years ago with, well. . .The point was he was a bit rusty as he hadn't needed any of them yet and they couldn't very well be practiced. It was obvious that he would need the spells now, and so long days of research would be needed to ensure their safe use.
  Magical backlash strikes were the undoing of even archmages. The worst thing a wizard could do was cast a spell that he couldn’t completely formulate in his mind or, if that step was done, not summon the necessary power to give it life. Then they were more dangerous to themselves and whatever was around them than the enemy. Poor Herkam, Lars mused, surrounded by three wizards ready to backlash on him. No wonder people didn't like to be around battle wizards. For Gust himself was a credible wind mage, a requirement for all princes. The lad used it sparingly, however, as he supposedly had greater powers he could tap in times of need. Song was obviously one, possibly rivaling even the valley of music's. The other, though, Lars would only have to watch and wait for. This was definitely a journey that would have many 'times of need', and sooner or later Gust would use whatever he could to defend himself. Lars hoped it would be enough.

  The uncustomary figurehead of the blooming rose proudly cut through the great gushes of water that turned to white foam and raced past the sides of the hull. The wind caught every sail, and the tide seemed to urge them on. No sign of worry came upon them that day and night, and the travelers retired in good spirit as the ship slowed to a comparably lethargic pace. Vistan, proud to be of service and to show Herkam up, went down to the Wizards' cabin and knocked lightly on the door. It never did to surprise a wizard, if he was working on a complex spell or researching hardly, then the merest knock could completely dash their concentration and maybe even cause a backlash. Not that Vistan was very worried about disrupting Lars, powerful wizards such as himself, especially ones trained for battle, could cast spells while shouts, screams, clangs, whinnies, and blood spewed everywhere around them. Vistan couldn't do that yet, but he was sure that in a few years he wouldn't notice if a dead soldier fell on his feet. He was looking forward to it.
  The door opened and a weary Lars lay back upon his hammock. His face held lines of recent pain and stress, but his smile was one of triumph. "Well done, lad. Even some of the more capable wizards might not have been able to endure a full day of wind funneling."
  "Obviously you've been enduring quite a lot more, seeing that I'm still fresh and your fighting to keep your eyes open."
  "It comes with the ride. Somewhere in the fine print the king ordered me to work my tail off on the first day of the trip. But come now, it is time for your studies. You must be quite bored from casting the same spell over and over. Uren Whistler's 4th. Law states that all magic must deviate from the norm or it will become mundane. What do you think he meant by this?"
  "If magic is repeated constantly then the wizard will fail to keep it accurate. The mind will cease to pay as much attention and the quality becomes poor or even dangerous. Eventually the wizard will either lose his stamina or he will make a mistake which will wipe from his mind the exact formula forever."
  "I guess you could interpret it that way. I'd rather like to think it to be a more philosophical message. Keep magic interesting or it'll be boring."
  "What kind of law is that? Laws should be factual, mathematic!"
  "Magic is as much in the spirit as it is in the mind, or in the body for that matter. If magic is reduced to math then it will change to physics and the ability to manipulate the laws would be lost. Such was the way of the last civilization. They spent so much time figuring out the laws of nature that they believed that they couldn't be changed. All magic is the manipulation of reality. The less you know about the reality you manipulate, the easier it is to change it."
  "Then why did you teach me anything? Wouldn't I have done better as an ignorant farmboy?"
  "Magic isn't everything, you know. Knowledge is one thing that will prevail no matter what the case, while magic is only handy for certain things--such as war and conquest. Anyway, magic is in the mind as much as it is in the spirit. We magi ride a knife-edge in trying to reach the greatest balance of the three sources. All three are necessary, but they all negate each other whenever one becomes larger than another. I am a smidgen above the line on knowledge, which hurts spirit. You, on the other hand, are far too low on body, and in actuality below on the other two as well. For a while now you can grow in all three categories as rapidly as you can and only gain in strength, but eventually you'll reach a limit and you must know when to stop. All wizards’ metabolisms vary, so I can't advise you how to train in the later years, but now you know why after a time all wizards reach equilibrium. They've found the best balance they can and any further improvement in any category will only hurt more than help."
  "So how does a law such as 'keep magic interesting or it will become boring' help my spiritual casting ability?"
  "Actually I'm still working on it. My best conclusion so far is Uren Whistler was a fool." And so the training went on late into the night, while at the same time the third defender of the prince remained on deck, pacing back and forth and fearfully watching the sky for anything that could befall them. Herkam knew it was his duty to do all the thinking, guarding, and fighting while the wizards were lost in space, imagining up alternate worlds and tapping the rays of Uranus to control the very air around them. They'd made very good speed and would soon be out of the canal and into the North Sea. Herkam spun on his boot and clanked over the muttering heads of tired sailors, ever vigilant and light stepped. His blade was crafted by some of the greatest metal smiths of the realm, albeit mundane. Herkam was glad to rest his hand upon its pommel without being met by an electric thrum of power for once, and this blade cleaved better than many of the enchanted ones he'd used in the past. He was wrapped in leather and cloth, not ready to don the heavy armour yet. Stars and planets mingled into bright specks scattered across the ebony cloth of deep space. Like all of the inhabitants, Herkam could pick out Uranus among the many thousands of specks. The Kingdom of Fire needn't teach anyone, the glaring evening star mocked the three other kingdoms each night as it challenged the very sun itself for supremacy. The water sloshed and reluctantly made way for the red-sailed clipper ship, as the high winds died down the sailors began to lower some of the sails and roll them back up. Ropes seemed to randomly snake across the ship from all different directions, and sailors like bees to flowers scurried from one to another, pulling here, tying there, then off to work on another rope. Herkam knew enough to know what the general idea behind it all was, but as for all the details he paid no heed to them. Everyone was too casual, too assured that the canal was safe. The crow nest was empty, and the helmsman was busy making sure the ship stayed on course. Herkam slowly halted his pacing, and decided to sleep near the helm in case of emergency. The now gentle swaying of the boat soothed the armsmaster to sleep, and the Cherry Blossom, blissfully unaware of its coming doom, merrily went about its way.
  The songs of the birds and the rising of the sun woke the armsmaster, the salty tang of the sea strangely mixed with the plants and animals of the land. The warrior rose as a determined-looking sailor swept by with pages of paper importantly fluttering in his hand. Other sailors went about their morning rituals, stretching and eating, preparing for the arduous task ahead. The armsmaster stiffly began his morning exercises, slashing and parrying with an invisible foe, and constantly moving, searching for a weakness like a stalking cobra. Gust came out from below, refreshed as ever, glad to be on there way again. "I doubt you'll find that useful on a boat, Herkam."
  "Nonetheless, we must always remain in training, lest they catch us unawares."
  "Well, be sure not to scare any of the sailors off the boat. Now, what is for breakfast?" The prince sighed refreshingly.
"Limes and potatoes would be my guess." Herkam answered succinctly.
  "Then potatoes it is, come on, stop prancing around and get your fill."
  "As you command, lord." Herkam sheathed his sword and smiled to show he wasn't that serious. Gust made a dismissive gesture and the wind picked up, filling the crimson sails of the Cherry Blossom. The land rushed by as they both sat down to eat. "For the prince, we've reserved some pork. I hope you enjoy what homely cooking we can afford."
  "I've eaten much less than pork before, cook, you needn't worry about me."
  "Thank you, my prince, but now I must see to the others. Your pardon,” The cook left to dish out more potatoes as the sun parted from the earth, a flaming disk that had overlooked the works of man for over ten thousand years. Herkam ate quickly and efficiently, seemingly indifferent to whatever the food was or tasted. "Where are the vaunted wizards?" Herkam gestured grandly, fork still in hand and head intent on his plate. "They've had a long day and a longer night,” Gust answered. “I doubt they'll be up by noon. If I was studying like that apprentice hell knows I sure wouldn't be up right now."
  "And what if we need them and they're still asleep?" Herkam complained.
  "Lighten up, we haven't even passed out of the Wind Reich. Nothing can assail us from here."
  "These are dark times. . ." Herkam came as close to arguing with the prince as he allowed. The other sailors finished at about the same time as the prince and his bodyguard, and went about their duties. Sails were unfurled to catch the magic power of Gust's own namesake. Clouds were puffy and wispy, not at all threatening. The ship peacefully went about its way, slightly detouring to pass by Koln, Dusseldorf, and Essen. They passed by other ships, mostly with dark or light green sails, loyal traders of the Reich. Other, larger and more powerful ships full of armed warriors also hastily went about their ways, preparing for the oncoming onslaught of both Fire and Earth. No doubt the main artery, the aorta of the Wind Reich, the Rhine, was even more rushed and crammed with flotillas. The signs of war were like a black cloud obscuring the light of the sun, pervading day-to-day life and influencing their thoughts and actions, something that can not be forgotten nor denied. Compared to some boats, the Cherry Blossom was but a schooner. To catch up on the news and for resting the ship stopped at each city to recuperate a little. Then off it went again through the canal. In a mere three days the bright red speck against the ever-stretching blue seascape exited the north canal and entered the North Sea, erstwhile passing through the fiefdoms of Nordheim-Westfallen and Nederland.

  "So now what?" The Prince asked the captain, also a lithe youth fresh from the University. No one trusted him with a warship yet, as all the experienced sailors had been forced into military service for the upcoming war that would decide the fate of the kingdom. Even so, the youth was charismatic and intelligent, the best they could provide for the prince.
  "Sir? Pardon me, but I was just lost in thought. You were saying?"
  "Where to next?" The prince asked patiently enough for one of his status.
  "Sir, it is my plans to pass through the English Channel and strike out into the middle of the Atlantic."
  "Couldn't you just go straight to the Wasser Reich? Why deviate so far?"
  "A northern route would be dangerous and slower, but if that is your wish..."
  "No, no. I just wanted to know why."
  "Oh, well then! Who'd have thought I'd be tutoring the very prince! I mean. . ."
  "Oh, just go on." Gust snapped.
  "Yes, sir. You see, the northern sea route has both a current and a wind going from the Kingdom of Water and to the Kingdom of Wind, which means both of them are acting against us. Of course we could reverse the wind, but we'd still be fighting against the current. Even worse, though, are the many icebergs that break off from the Arctic and come floating south as far down as Spanien. If we kept as far north as we are now, we'd be lucky not to be pulverized by them. By going farther south we can avoid the Gulf Stream and, though not helped by the current, at least are not hindered by it. With the mage-wind continuously at work we will reach Bermuda in a matter of only five days."
  "Five days! To cross the great Atlantic! I find that hard to imagine we could be going so fast!"
  "This ship is a beauty, sir. I doubt I'll ever captain another as grand as the Cherry Blossom. With the same conditions a galleon would make it in ten." The captain's voice beamed with pride. He had every right to be, if he could do such a thing. Gust shook his head, smiling, "Surely by the time you get back the Mari`ne will be itching to send you to battle."
  "I'll be looking forward to it, sir. But right now it is my every pleasure to be serving you, Prince Gust."
Herkam strode quickly across the planks, all bedecked in sword and armour. "We are out of the safety of the canal now, my liege, please notify me if you’re going anywhere. I intend to stand at your side at all times until we reach Philadelphia. In fact it isn't wise to even be up here in sight and vulnerable to attack. Please allow me to escort you to your cabin." Gust snorted but complied, going below decks with a nervous armsmaster behind. Lars and Vistan woke and went to eat, passing by the other two party members. "From now on I expect you to be awake and ready at all times as long as the prince is awake, you must be prepared to defend Gust." Herkam stated fervently, Lars nodded before Vistan could say anything dumb, and both wizards passed out of sight.

  As the hours passed by the Cherry Blossom hugged the northern coast of the Wind Reich, being quickly blown through the channel with heavy sea forts overlooking and insuring the safety of all the ships. The Frank Reich and England, in the past bitter rivals but now unified under the power of Uranus, made it almost impossible for invading armadas of even five times the strength as the Mari`ne to pass through. Herkam was garbed in pure steel from head to toe, the best armour of the realm. The steel helmet, armour, gauntlets, and greaves all combined made him an impressive figure, and surely made standing an arduous exercise. Most of the sailors called him the 'Stahl Seeldot', both for his garb and his stern-as-steel attitude and determination. Lars carried both sword and staff, a battle mage to the core. Gust carried his sword and his lyre, as powerful as a staff in its own way. And Vistan brought up the rear with staff alone, but with eyes that promised the staff would be enough.
  Assuredly they were all ready for battle. By the end of the day, however, the protective ring of the wind magi averted any water creatures and no other enemies attacked. The Cherry Blossom fell asleep in good spirits, as the land of their homeland slowly drifted away from the horizon and the vast Atlantic stretched across the world.
  The next day the companions ate below decks, and the budding rose of the figurehead forged ahead, crimson sails catching every parcel of the hard-earned mage wind. The captain studied the charts and logged in the distance covered and longitude and latitude of the ship as was his duty, and all went smoothly. The Cherry Blossom, however, had finally met its doom. Pirate ships waited ahead.

Chapter 2. Pirate Attack. Impending Doom
The Cherry Blossom, propelled by massive winds, rushed through the ocean at top speed. The vermilion sails with the budding rose topped by a cherry were pulled taut, the ropes straining tight just holding the sheets of cloth. Then came the dreaded shout from the crow's nest, "Ship ahoy! Black sailed!" The sailors rushed to their posts, the captain shouting for archers to assemble at the center. The wizards and Herkam rushed up from below decks to see what was happening. Another shout rushed down from the crow's nest, "The jolly roger! They've got the Jolly Roger! Pirates!"
  The captain came rushing towards Gust from the helm. "Sir, requesting the aid of the wind mages! This is no fighting ship, we don't stand a chance without magic!"
  Before the prince could reply, Lars cut in. "Try to outrun them! We can't afford to betray our position to anyone!" Gust looked quizzically at him, but Lars had no time to explain.
  "Come wizard, have you no heart? She'll be sunk within the next fifteen minutes! She needs you!" Gust cajoled, but Lars shook his head violently. "I thought you said this ship was fast, do what you can! If we use our magic, then the pirates will tell Fire and then all is lost!"
  "Sir!" The captain rushed away, showing no sign of despair. "Take down the main sail, full rudder to the left! Helmsman, full to the left! Hurry it up, lads!” Massive groans of strain emerged from the abused ship as it turned in the water, ropes strained to the point of breaking as varying sails were either put up or released to catch the correct wind. The Cherry Blossom fled. Now the pirate ships could be seen, racing towards the helpless schooner at full speed, sails and oars. "They’re trying to ram us, we've got another across the starboard!"
  The captain spewed out a fury of orders, a small isle of order trying to harness the chaos around it. The pirates couldn't keep up with the small, speedy ship, and at first it looked as if they'd escape. Then the secondary mast snapped, and the huge block of timber crashed into the deck. The frenzied captain shouted, "Get it out! Pull the damn thing off, get it off her! Sailors were caught trying to do three things at once, but did their best.
  The captain threw his sword to the deck, "Damn it all, but no ship could take that strain!" He ran over to where the three wizards remained. Herkam had already rushed off to help, but the wizards had no idea what to do and would as soon make it worse than help. "Now what do we do, vaunted wizard! We're crippled and they’re catching up. If we're boarded then not even your precious prince will live! For our lives, man, use the wind!"
  "Very well! Vistan, help me here, I'm going to cast a wind spiral!" Vistan seemed to double in height, green eyes flashing as he concentrated on the advanced spell. Together they chanted the word of magic,"Vintoand!"
Lars then pointed at the enemy ship and a great rush of wind flew by them, knocking unprepared sailors off their feet and flapping sails violently. As the wind rushed from places unknown towards the epicenter of the spell, great waves were blown up from the sea. The wind created an ominous scene as a great ring of ever-growing water raced towards the enemy ship. Even as the first ship was snapped like a twig by the terrible conflicting winds and devoured by the violence of the ocean, the wind mages concentrated on the next. "Again now, on three!"
  "Vintoand!" The previously pursuing target had now sharply turned, trying to escape the might of the third greatest wind mage alive. Lars's blue eyes flashed as the next wind spiral came into being and with a great howl pursued the panicked pirates. Gust ordered the helmsman to chase the other fleeing ship to their right, and the crippled Cherry Blossom turned again, trying to keep it within Lars's range. As the pursuit began, the second ship was torn apart, masts snapped, ropes lashed about, sails whirled about, the hull ripped apart against the four different forces of the wind, and great waves spilled into the hull, making it capsize and claiming most of the pirate's lives to a watery grave. Vistan's head was pulled into a mask of strain as sweat beaded at his brow, but Lar's didn't even seem agitated. "First slow it down so I can finish it, my apprentice. Cast a windblast or whatever you seem fit."
  Vistan gasped in relief, apprehending the effort of casting another wind spiral. His staff glowed green as he held it up to the sky. Suddenly the enemy’s sails grew lax and heavy on the pirate's ship. The weight threatened to topple the masts and the pirates hurriedly took them down, striving with oars alone to escape the now much speedier Cherry Blossom. Lars then harnessed the power of his own staff, and shouted for the last time,"Vintoand!" The wind made mincemeat of the black-sailed menace, causing shattered fragments to fly out in every direction, the various flotsam a last reminder of the power of Uranus. The scout atop the fragile crow's nest, which so far had focused his full attention on simply not falling out as the various winds buffeted him, now yelled once more, "Ship ahoy, fleeing to the west at eight knots!"
  "Damn it all, catch that ship!" Lars ordered to the captain. But the captain only shrugged, compacted his spyglass and shook his head. "It's no good, I can't even see it. Unless your magic. . .?" Vistan turned his shadowed face towards his master, eyes projecting hope. "Just let me think! I need to know the exact distance, go ask your scout." Then Lars rushed down stairs into his cabin, leaving the rest of the party members behind. Gust at first seemed to concentrate, then gave it up. "I can't think of anything." The prince sighed. Vistan bowed to the prince, then pulled back his hood to look at the prince. His face seemed to be tired but vindicated. "Lars will sink it, there's any number of ways. . .By the way, do you know what we're doing? Lars said something about saving the world, but he didn't really get into specifics. I've gathered that you're indispensable, and we're traveling to the Wasser Reich. But what then?"
  "I guess I can tell you, I don't see any point in being mysterious. Right now we're trying to get to Philly, and from there to Gettysburg. We're to join Princess Gale there and then keep going all the way to Irkutsk."
  "Why Irkutsk? That's right in the middle of the Kingdom of Earth, our greatest enemy."
  "It's also the location of the first key. It's in the black library of Irkutsk."
  "Ahhh, the three fabled keys. You are aware that no one has ever reached Spa in all of recorded history?"
  "It's there, though. Waiting, thriving, Spa will always be there. It is the eternal city."
  "So we escape to Spa and watch our kingdom be destroyed while we eat grapes and drink wine?" Whatever Gust's reply would've been was interrupted by Lars bursting out from below, blue eyes fervent on the invisible ship ahead. "I'm going to create a tropical storm directly on top of it. I wish I could think of something less sapping, but it's so far away." Then Lars held up his staff, which now radiated a brilliant green, and the air around him grew quiet. Overhead the sky grew dark. Great clouds billowed towards the distant ship. Gust at first turned to talk to Lars, but changed his mind and looked at Vistan, almost whispering, “Won’t that sink us too?"
  "We must trust in the elements, my lord. Obviously Lars is a couple steps ahead of us." The sky grew ever darker, black clouds obscuring the light of day and making it as twilight. "And now I must help my master." Vistan proclaimed. His staff glowed green as well, but hardly matching Vistan's emerald eyes, which flashed in concentration. The strain on his body tightened muscles and pulled his face into a grimace. Lars seemed more at ease, but was now sweating, muttering the words of magic that would make such an awesome storm. "Nuvoledue, capovest rapido. Conguingerenuvole cinque. Iocommandare tugirare!" And so on. Vistan's words were more strained and gentle, as if he was soothing a savage beast. "Soprado intornu, manon attraverso." The sound of great winds howled by the sailors, and the waves grew large and turbulent, but the air still remained quiet and placid around the ship. Far in the distance a great pillar of spinning water seemed to rise from the sea to meet the clouds, caught up in the great winds that were labouring over the pirate ship. The sky grew gray in the distance, as it is wont to do when rain falls. Then both wizards stopped chanting. Vistan leaned upon his staff, exhausted from the effort of protecting the ship. Lars wiped his sweaty hands upon his leather armour and smiled at his work. "It is all I can do. If the ship survives we can hardly follow it, but I very much doubt it can handle seventy-five mile-per-hour winds. Hopefully no survivors or what have you will tell what happened today before we reach Philadelphia, though I'm sure all magicians will take notice of the tropical storm that has just sprang into being. It is hurricane season; maybe they will think it only natural. The clouds will protect us from view for now, and I think I will rest--by your leave, of course."
  "Do what you wish, mighty mage, and with my blessing. You and your apprentice have already saved us all."
  "I would not have my best friend and companion be harmed as long as my blood still flows, you needn't thank any of us." With that Lars bowed, head to knee as was right, and made his way to his quarters. Vistan, gasping for air, shaggy red hair drenched in perspiration, tried to bow but almost fell to the ground. "If you will. .Excuse me, my lord. I must attend my master." Vistan slowly rose and plodded down the wooden steps. Gust looked once more towards the awe-inspiring power of Uranus, and shook his head. He should have helped. Vistan wasn't even as strong as Gust, and yet he'd contributed much more. He just didn't think fast enough. Herkam, his work finished, now marched back to the thoughtful prince.
  "Now I fear this ship is doomed. I am sorry, my lord. I've failed in my duty, for soon all the minions of Venus shall be hurtling down upon us."
  "Nonsense! The pirates are all dead, we've won a glorious victory."
  "There will be reports, scouts sent out to gain information, it is only a matter of time until they find us. As long as you stay below decks, maybe they will think there are only wizards. Maybe they won't try as hard. . ."

  "Is the wind steady again?" Fagan Louis demanded.
  "Aye, captain. You've pulled it off again!"
  "Then set sail! Set course for Georgetown." The cloak of invisibility slowly dissipated, revealing the black-sailed galleon of the Nattergash. The cursed red-sailed schooner was gone, including its thrice-cursed passengers. Fagan had spent his entire fortune and life building up his fleet; it had become one of the greatest powers on the high seas. Now three of his most prized ships were sunk beneath the waves. Fagan was a rebel wind-mage, a pirate who used his powers combined with his fleet to be a fearsome force, but his adversary was ten times his strength. By the time the first spell was cast Fagan could only do all he could to preserve his own ship. He protected it from the wind and waves, and made it invisible, and now he was groggy and tired, and wasted by the effort. But he would get his revenge and a profit yet from this disaster, the Kingdom of Fire would pay well for the location of a wind mage such as that. Fagan had never lost a battle yet and he wasn't about to start now.
  Vistan didn’t wake up until later the next evening, but Lars was already fresh and about by morning. The ability to create almost hurricane force winds without even full use of one’s energy was awesome, but Lars had that much power and more. Herkam, the Stahl Seeldot, muttered and cursed about their fortune, making sure Gust couldn’t be seen again and talking of escaping on a lifeboat. The sailors were already taking spare lumber and cloth to have a makeshift replacement until they reached Bermuda. As the day wore by and nothing happened Herkam grew more and more anxious.
  “Can’t you just teleport us all to Gettysburg and be done with it? At one point stealth was the better option, but now. . .If we don’t get off this boat something bad’s going to happen, I can feel it.”
  “Mass teleportation over extreme distances can be achieved, but not by me and not now. The Archmage, or even Uranus, might--but I am only Lars.”
  “Then what can you do? Sink another dozen ships? Sooner or later we’ll be under a real assault and this boat won’t be ready to handle it.”
  “Now I think that’s your field of expertise, is it not, Armsmaster? Besides, an entire fleet could not defeat my powers, especially when augmented by two capable spell casters and this staff. Wind is one of the most capable powers against ships, only Fire can be more destructive.”
  “And what happens when Fire comes against us?” Lars was silent, a grim, poker face set over his usual rational self. The tension remained, each third best in their own masteries, each sure that theirs was more important than the others’. Finally Herkam turned his gaze away and clinked across the wooden boards, groaning in protest with the sudden weight. Herkam then went to his prince, bringing him more food and waiting to be sure that all was comfortable for Gust.
  “Is the green-eyed lad awake yet?” Gust inquired, a little concernedly.
  “He is fine, now, my lord. I knew he shouldn’t have gotten involved, a boy of fifteen such as himself should not be forced into such desperate situations. I can arrange for his transportation back once we reach Philadelphia, if that is your wish.”
  “In general I would agree, but this apprentice is different. He radiates such power, as if I were standing next to our patron planet and absorbing its magic. It could very well be that he is just as necessary as you or I in this mission. I would not endanger him at all save for the desperate plight we are in. Even youths must help, or the chances are dim.”
  “As you wish. Lars says it would be impossible to teleport us all over as long a distance as two-thirds of the Atlantic.”
  “I told you it was so; if I myself can barely teleport from one city to the next, then think of the sheer distance the ocean calls for. No, I’m afraid not even our vaunted wind mage can accomplish that.”
  “I only hoped. Lars did, however, give a good suggestion I plan to follow up if you concur. If things are as I believe to be, we will be under siege before we reach the Wasser Reich. I doubt even Lars can handle the full might of Venus’s minions, and it might very well come to combat. If so I demand for your own safety you remain hidden, but I could possibly train the crew how to fight.”
  “In so short a time? We are expected to reach Bermuda in five days, what can anyone learn in that short a time, especially seeing that they also need to tend to the ship?”
  “Any advantage we have could mean the difference between your life and death. I will do whatever I can to help, if you but allow me.”
  “Well then, do as you wish. I only hope it does not come to that. It seems to me that the entire fleet was destroyed.” Herkam nodded then, and left Gust’s chambers to begin the first training session. Finally the armsmaster felt in control. Herkam climbed up the stairs and made his way to the helm. His shining, polished armour refracted the daylight into thousands of tiny splinters of individual beauty, all praising the one inside. His steel helmet, gauntlets, armour, and greaves all lent to the idea that he was indeed just a piece of steel and not a human at all. No flesh showed, and intricate, engraved details scratched into the suit signified the honourable role as an Armsmaster, trainer of the greatest champions and warriors that would very soon now be taking to the field. Everything about him portrayed him as a hero, as a champion from ages long past. “Attention, good people. By order of the lord our honourable Prince Gust, a hand-to-hand combat training session will be conducted each morning. From 8 till 12, excluding all necessary tasks to keep the Cherry Blossom traveling at highest speed, all hands will come with whatever weapons they have to this area or suffer severe punishment. That is all.” Herkam unclasped his helmet, holding it in his hand, and walked back down to his cabin to allow the sailors to speak freely. The murmurs had already begun by the time he was descending the stairway.
  Vistan moaned, waking to a cramped, strained body. His eyes remained shut, as he was content to forget yesterday and just go back to sleep. The velvety fabric of his green robes brushed against his cheek, making him shudder. To think he could ever be a wind mage, when he could barely support Lars on his first battle. Vistan tried to roll over, but then remembered he was in a hammock and lay down in despair. The ropes had etched big red stripes across his face while he’d slept. Vistan sighed and tried to settle down again, but he grew so very hot inside his robes and sheets, motionless, allowing the salty air to cover him in a third blanket which focused the heat upon him like a magnifying glass. In the end Vistan managed to sit up precariously perched on the side of the hammock, allowing his vision to blur away under the strange brown pattern that always came upon him when he stood up after being in one position too long. Once, Vistan remembered as his eyes gained control again, it had grown so bad that he’d grown so dizzy that he collapsed back against the slick side of the sauna after trying to rise; causing a great ruckus and embarrassing the newly accepted apprentice. Vistan would rather be as dizzy as that than what he felt now. The sea air made him want to throw up, and the constant rocking that hadn’t bothered him until now did nothing to help. His face grew to a sickly green tint much the same as his clothing. But he gulped the retch back down and stood, shaking his head to not let the brown wave overtake him again. Fetching his staff, Vistan rose under the glaring sun’s descent. The bright sun made him sneeze violently, and again until he finally had to cut his vision to slits so as to not allow so much sunlight. Vistan clutched his staff and cursed, coughing in weakness from last day’s trial. No one should have to do that. If he were a fighter, then he could’ve just sat around confused and let the battle rage about him until he was slaughtered or it ended, but as a wizard he was expected to be so much more. Sometimes he didn’t think he was the fabled one at all. He was the bastard son of the arrogant wizard who dared to call himself the Chosen One, nothing more. A mistake, something that fate had tried to be rid of but had been stymied by the unexpected kindness of another mage. Vistan looked down at his brilliant green clothing, and then back up at the sun, and his eyes grew firm. He would prove that he could still perform, and get rid of that sun to boot. It was amazing nobody had thought to intervene yet. “Nuvole--Modulo!” The magic coursed through his body and staff, and the wind summoned a cloud from the ether and placed it directly on top of the sun. Just to make sure it wouldn’t be a signal to supposed searchers, he repeated the performance in a bunch of other places to make it seem natural. That should please his master, and now he could look around again. Now for some food, and if I have to eat one more sour piece of fruit then my mouth will be puckered forever. . .

  Diverting the wind to the direction he pleased, Fagan made haste towards Guyana. It would be a close race. They both had the aid of the wind, but Fagan’s port was closer. But he had to get there and the Feuer Reich had to get back. Fagan, being from the Ossterreich, also used the Kingdom of Wind’s tongue. But as his black-sailed ship raced through the waves towards the horizon, he came upon another Red-Sailed ship. At first, he panicked, thinking somehow the wind-mage had teleported an entire ship. But the heart proudly emblazoned on the mainsail proved it to be a member of the Feuer Reich’s daunting navy. Venus, goddess of love. Venus, patron-planet to the mightiest of kingdoms. Thus the heart symbolized fire; two things that many times came together even without the strange logic of mankind.
  The schooner signaled it to a halt, as pirate ships were, for a reason, distrusted and disliked in the Fiery Demesnes. Fagan, thanking whatever entity that had given him this blessing, ordered the ship full right rudder and took the wind out of his sails.

The Last Stand
Herkam laid a placating hand on the shoulder of one of the more zealous sailors, who had whole-heartedly been carving the practice dummy in two. The man jerked under the light pressure and looked innocently towards the armsmaster. “That’s enough, Hans!” Herkam admonished roughly. “Now, stop wielding your scimitars like axes! You don’t chop with a scimitar, you dance, you sing!” Herkam, furious at the confused looks of his would-be soldiers, snatched Hans’s scimitar away, and faced the practice dummy--rather, what was left of it. Herkam sliced, and moved, and sliced, and the blade flickered and darted, becoming a deadly butterfly fluttering from one limb to another. Within moments the dummy had collapsed, legless and with a dozen nasty cuts all across it. “Now--I want you to face those dummies and for once in your--”
  A nervous cabin boy, tentatively ringing a small bell, signaled the end of the session. Herkam had to agree with Gust. These sailors simply weren’t warriors. But the last thing he was going to do was admit it! These magicians retire all night to study, and Herkam wasn’t going to let them best him. All these wind mages and a simple sword could do twice as well in half the time. If only anybody knew what a sword was! No matter, next time, he’d get the wind mages to animate the wooden figures. He thought that was more in the phyla of earth magic, but surely wind could do the equivalent in a different method. For once they’d see that people didn’t just stand there and wait. . .
  Herkam’s darting eyes recoiled as if blinded by lightning. High in the clouds, an entire flock of flamm falkonen circled the Cherry Blossom. The bright streaks of smoke and fire following the progress of the Venusians. Magical creatures were considered to be directly linked with their patron-planets, thus were deemed as living on the planet that enchanted them. The Pegasi were alternatively Uranians, the hippocampi Neptunians, and the golems Jovians. Before Herkam could shout warning, a cry from the crow’s nest raced down the mast, “Ships Ho! They bear the bloody hearts!” The deck erupted into frantic activities. Lars and Vistan emerged from the lower decks, staffs clutched tightly. As long as Gust himself wasn’t seen, Herkam hoped, maybe this will be all. Maybe
  Overhead the great bellowing of a red dragon promised the Cherry Blossom’s assured destruction. But she had not counted with the likes of the third greatest wind mage upon the earth. “Lasciarela ventourlare infuria controla abominazione!” And from the distant green clouds of Uranus, the wind did come, and the red dragon beat its wings frivolously as it was messily scattered against the water. Catapults armed with fiery balls of iron rained down around the sleek ship, and burning bolts struck the blooming rose below the cherry, with such force that they remained lodged in a crevice even as the ship zigged across the vicious sea. More aerial attackers descended, Venusians in undying loyalty to their creators’ kingdom. Die they did, by great droves. As great blasts of wind tossed them like a giant’s fist into the water, and a burgeoning storm surely summoned by one glowing staff or the other struck enemy ships and Venusians with lightning. As Lars had claimed, an entire fleet could not defeat him. Strange chants created walls of air, or froze ships to ice as the air in that region was replaced by the deep wintry nights of Norwegen. As fast as more enemies beset upon the tiny ship, the wind mages destroyed them. It was then that a great galleon, great arrow indicating the power of love, and thus the power of the Fiery Demesnes, came flowing through the mists like a great Auk among geese. Magic faced magic, the patron-planets swirling and shaking as they battled upon the tiny realm of Earth. Herkam could hear Lars shouting out another spell, still quite calm--the armsmaster doubted anything could distract the man while in the process of casting. “Miopatrano, Falliremi non! Vintoand!” But even as the great winds converged upon his target, a great flame burst upon the Cherry Blossom, enveloping it from bow to stern. The holocaust would have quickly sunk the vessel, but Vistan summoned the wind to carry great loads of water and fling them against the deck. Almost as quickly as the flame appeared, it was gone, leaving only the partially burnt ship in its memory. In the confusion an enemy ship closed quickly on the defenseless Cherry Blossom. Ramming the poor thing, a deep rent in its hull was plugged by the enemy’s vessel. Soldiers, trained warriors, poured in an endless stream from one ship to the other. In an instant, a wind mage had struck the ship into nothing but splinters from a fantastic lightning strike.
  Herkam drew his mighty steel blade, sparkling in the fiery havoc around him, and descended upon the enemy. Where he went the enemy was no more, the speed in which the armsmaster struck could not be blocked, the belated attempts to riposte either dodged or casually shrugged off by his steel armour. The metal incarnation of power darted across his ship, and his touch was death.
  Vistan gasped and shuddered, his body still loosening from his last spell, and leaned upon his staff. How long would this go on? It seemed like a lifetime already, an eternity of recital and summoning, of strain and exhilaration when the pent up magic of Uranus was unloosed upon the foe. Gouts of Fire hitting invisible walls of Air, Air evaporating from the heat of Fire, dissipating into useless mundanity. Venusians battling Uranians in the sea and sky, as the two planets fought upon the common ground of Gaia. All around him screams and cries accompanied by crunches and sickening gurgles of throats choking on their own blood. It would never end, it just kept going, this was the past, present, and the future forever. His dulled wits picked out a ship approaching dangerously near. Let Lars deal with it. Let someone else do it, I am so tired. . .But Vistan picked himself up and tried to concentrate on another act of destruction and mayhem, he remembered that today was the first day he had ever killed anyone; And as the wave of channeled power was channeled into his body, taking a part of his soul and vitality along with it as it came out a spell, he wondered if the hundreds of innocent galley slaves, rowers chained to the hull, would ever forgive him in his dreams. And from his foggy thoughts, not even remembering what he had done to the ship that was now being torn asunder, a distant voice called out his name. “Vistan! VISTAN!!!” Someone was shaking his body, he hoped they would hold on, or he would fall to the deck, and join all the other dead, blood soaked corpses around him. “Snap out of it! I’m at the limit of my powers, I can’t cast this without you!” I used to know that face, in some lifetime long forgot, that face had a name.
  “Lars?” Vistan croaked out of a sun-parched throat.
  “The prince is down, maybe dead. If not for his songs and the great beasts that even now swirl about us in battle the ship would have sunk long ago. Without him, we have no choice but to cast the ultimate spell. The final sacrifice for king and country. Are you with me?”
  “Lars? I can’t see very well, and I’m more tired than, than, well, I’m just really tired. I don’t think I can help.”
  “But you’ve got to, son! Even now our last defenses weaken, we are embroiled in a battle so great and so early on our journey that it seems Uranus has turned away from us, but even so, we must do whatever we can for our land. Do not lose hope, do not lose spirit! There is still a chance, Wind is an element much greater in scope than the air that shakes the leaves of the trees and plays with the hair of fair maidens. But you must help, you must concentrate!”
  “I’ll do what I can, but I don’t even know of a spell that can save us now. Teleportation? They can trace the magic, they’ll be there by the next day. Mass psychological tampering? There will be another force sicked upon us now that they know we have the prince. What can we do?”
  “There are too many lesser mages for mass psychology to be of any use, but we can accomplish much the same thing through more devious paths. It is a three-fold spell. First we must create the illusion of this ship sinking beneath the waves, then we have to cloak the boat in invisibility, and then we must make the entire ship ethereal. Fire knows of invisibility, and can act against it, but it is well-kept secret that the Magi of Uranus can actually make things as insubstantial as the air itself. It is relatively simple on you, but we must make this entire ship disappear without a trace. This is one of the most violent skewings of reality, the law of conservation of energy decrees that matter can not simply cease to be--all physical reality goes against the idea of atoms having no mass, no density that could clash into other objects, but it must be done if we are to escape this carnage. Maybe Fire at the time of equinox could destroy such an enemy assault, but this is the best I can do.”
  “Master, I shall create the illusions, you concentrate solely on the last step. I fear this will cause a backlash for us both, but so be it. The legends can tell a different tale about me than was foretold, but none the worse.” Lars nodded his head in silent agreement, and then his eyes seemed to look inside his head, and Vistan well recognized the signs of intense concentration. Invisibility, a power that came naturally with the element of air, for it itself was invisible. A simple matter even for him, except now it seemed more insurmountable than Sisyphus’ task. His body had never meant to endure such trials, he tried to summon some reserve, anything, but it had already been spent a long time ago. So be it, let the backlash strike, if only it comes after my spell is done. “Lasciare questanaves immagineaffondare sottola onda!” Vistan gasped and quickly spoke out his second spell, “Invisibile!” A hammer stroke smashed against Vistan’s skull, splintering it into thousands of tiny pieces. All the spells he had ever learned were wiped away, all the magic he had so easily channeled exploded in bursts of color, his body was thrown against the deck as the spell tried to suck its due out of Vistan’s twisted, dry rag. His eyes, and with it the presence of Uranus, closed for a long time. Backlash had struck.

  “Sir, I can detect no ship anywhere in the proximity. The Cherry Blossom sits at the bottom of the ocean, and with it Prince Gust and the hopes of all of the Kingdom of Wind. We are victorious!” The Fire Mage pursued once more the majority’s point of view. They had seen the ship sunk, there was nothing left to do here. Occam’s Razor decreed that in fact Venus had prevailed once more. But if he were wrong, and it was later found that the ship had indeed escaped the noose---It was the kingdom of love, but it bore no love for liars, nor failures. The fire mages had already tried to produce physical evidence but they said they were too weak, and that the element of water was much better suited to such a task. So they waited, waited for something to float up that was obviously part of the Cherry Blossom, waited for some twinge of magic that would show that the ship was still going, waited and watched for some sort of sign. Instead the helmsman saw something much bigger, “Sir,” the man’s voice quavered, “A damn hurricane is coming right at us! A hurricane sir! The waves alone would drown us all! We’ve got to get out of here!”
  So, that was the last spell of Lars, that was the huge spell that the fire mages had detected but had seemed to do nothing. But it wouldn’t work, the fleet was too fast, the hurricane wasn’t even going straight towards them. He must have been too tired to cast it right. Black clouds covered the sky from one side to the other, with fantastic, silent streaks of lightning flying to and fro. “Call in the aerial scouts! Set sail for Antigua!” He had done all he could, let Venus sort out the rest.

Book I:
It never fails to amaze me how dependent your children are to you, and how very trusting they are that you will serve them.” Uranus conjectured.
  Venus answered, “What would you have me do? They called to me in their time of need, and so I gave them what I could. My people love me, they worship what I stand for and thank me readily. The same can not be said of your people.”
  “Maybe my people are more independent, and thank me by not demanding miracles of me and leaving me alone for the most part.”
  Venus projected amusement, “You’d like to think that, but I am the Goddess of Love, if you recall, and I know you for a lonely soul.”
  “A spinning orb of methane with a lonely soul, how the old humans would have laughed!” The thoughts of goodwill regrettably but inexorably turned to business.
  “You realize, Uranus, that our peace can remain no longer. My people call to me, they beg and plead for the final conquest. My children ask for bread, and I am by definition the only one incapable of handing them a stone. They are dependent, and so I must care for them. Their needs outweigh my own, for without them I would never be.”
  “I am ashamed to have already taken action against you, evening star. Already there is a boy filled with my essence and fated to save my Kingdom, and I have taken steps to see towards your land's ruin. Indeed I have seen this coming since the beginning of time, humans will never learn peace, and so their ways spread across the solar system and cut our friendship. Forgive me when I destroy you.”
  “We shall see, Uranus. You are so very far away, and I am so very near. By the time your power matches my own, I hope to have already slain you.” A new celestial body linked, and then another, and another.
  “Uranus, I hope you know what you’re doing.” Neptune projected. “Prismi is such an unlikely thing, is it really the best chance we’ve got?”
  “Do not act so innocent,” Jupiter playfully mocked, “You knew this was going to happen and acted to protect your half of the compact before Uranus even suggested joining flows.”
  “Where do you fall into all this, Colossus? You will surely crush Uranus in due time, but why?”
  “Do not tell me you feel a need to repay your people as well, such morality is ill-beseeming to your image.”
  “Unlike the rest of you lapdogs, I play this game to win” Jupiter proclaimed. “ I will conquer the world, and then I shall have Earth for all eternity, the rest of you fallen back into your dead states as nature would have you.” And then in an explosion of raw joy and excitement, Mars finished its most complex thought in a century, “Blood!”

1. Upon the Shores of the Wasser Reich
  “My Lord, I am sorry to report I can not produce any physical evidence of the ship’s loss or the wizards’ deaths.” Admiral Enrico gritted through clenched teeth. The prolonged interview made sweat bead upon his brow and slowly travel down his face in rivulets. “But we all saw the ship sink, and a mass psychology attack hasn’t been detected by any of the court magicians. It would seem our mission was a success far greater than we’d originally thought. We went into battle against a wizard, we killed a prince!”
  The King of Fire was bedecked in sapphires and rubies. His throne was covered in heavy red satin. He looked as much a god as a mortal. His name was Bernardo, and he was the mightiest person on Earth. “The Fire Mages have made it a positive that it was in fact Lars you engaged with, and not Uranus. The person with the green eyes was obviously someone else, maybe an apprentice mage. No one of consequence. And from what I know, Lars did far better than I would have expected. Neither do my wizards know of any magic that could’ve let them escape, though I’ve had ideas. . . You’ve done well, Admiral. If any further information is gained, I will be sure to notify you immediately. For the nonce, prepare your fleet for the final assault. The Kingdom of Water shall fall once and for all, and their magic will be forgotten forever.” Enrico saluted his lord and left. Bernardo gestured to his advisor. “I want aerial scouts stretching across the entire coastline. If they find a red-sailed ship, report back immediately. I fear that victory can not ever be so simple.” The advisor saluted and left to carry out his own orders. Then the king attended to yet another matter. “What reports from Commander Gesper?” A shadow detached itself from the wall and bowed. Despite the King’s concentrated glare, the shape barely assumed a human form. Even his personal servant’s eyes were black. Somewhere in that patch of night were the weapons of a ninja, and the mind of a merciless killer. “Sir, the siege of Gettysburg goes poorly, which the commander reminds you he predicted. Striking at the capital without any supplies or heavy siege weaponry is a futile gesture.”
  “Futile, that is, if the goal is capturing the city. How long does our dear noble predict he can maintain the attack?”
  “Sir, he gives himself only two weeks, and requests permission to withdraw.”
  “Tell him permission denied. And the princess?”
  “She is well, despite our efforts. It seems she has more than mundane defenses.”
  “As to be expected. But time is running out. I cannot sacrifice entire armies to fruitless assassination attempts, even if it serves the purpose of a diversion. Gather a fleet for evacuation, give your friends four days to do the job right.”
  “If I may suggest, if one of your dear mages could teleport me. . .”
  “I’m sure you would get the job done, but there are more pressing matters, such as my own protection. I cannot spare you. Drive the thought from your mind, Lastair.”
  “As you say, my lord. I shall carry out your orders forthwith.” It was a grand day for Venus. An altar of her stood on either side of the front door. Donated to the King by some country or another in tribute. They were bronze, contrasting with the garish red everywhere else. The King looked at the Goddess of Love, and decided it was past time to devote himself to the more pleasurable duties of a King--producing an heir.

  It was a nice day for the city of Gettysburg, with a slight breeze and a cloud-covered, sunny sky. It would’ve been even better if the breeze did not bring upon it the smell of death and fire, and if the sky were not filled with Venusians and Neptunians, battling for the survival of the Kingdom of Water itself. All around the great citadel lay the encamped masses of the enemy. Thoroughly entrenched, neither side’s missiles had any effect, and so a strange silence filled the air. A tense silence. Broken by the sound of a young girl’s voice, “Vater? Wo ist Hydrosphere? Er hat essen, nicht?” The swift gait of Princess Gale made its way through the winding corridors to her father’s study. Opening the door, Gale smiled at the sight of her pet, guardian, and confidante---a little ball of floating, spinning water. Beside it was the King of Water, ruler of a grand, great realm, servant of Neptune. “Gale, stop showing off and get this pest out of here! He’ll probably spray all over my precious documents and reports and ruin my priceless furniture!” The King smiled, teasing his only daughter--the Kingdom’s last hope for survival. “Oh stop it, Daddy. We all know little Waterball here doesn’t leak a bit, Elementals have bodies just like us.”
  “That amorphous blob is the last thing I consider to have a body. Can’t it hover over someone else’s head?”
  “What was that, Hydrosphere? You think Daddy’s an old sourpuss? Well, as long as you’re company you should be a little more discrete.” The King wasn’t quite sure if the elemental had said anything, as only a few people versed in the lore of Elementals and Gale herself could hear him. But he wasn’t going to let the Princess get away with it.
  “All right, you’ve had your fun. Now go away and pester your tutors, and take him with you.” The King jerked a thumb over his head. Gale beckoned Hydrosphere, and flounced off. Charles returned to the scripture below him, the sun providing ample light.

  My lord:
  I have heard that our capital is under siege. The arrogance of Fire is incredible. We march, and the sounds of our war horns will shatter the gray morn’ before the week is out. I know you’ve been expecting the Cherry Blossom, so I plan to make my way through Philadelphia before I arrive. ‘Twould be a pitiable thing for Wind to have fallen so easily so soon, but fear not. For if their prince doesn’t come. Why then I, a far greater prince by all accounts, shall assure us of final victory over the southern scum. Don’t give up hope!
Thorand, Prince of the Waters. Rider of the Dolphins.

Other reports weren’t quite so optimistic. Scouts skirting the edge of Mexico reported massive mobilization efforts on both land and sea. The Kingdom of Fire was amassing an army greater than any previous one ever heard of. The Kingdom of Water was larger and more populated, but the magic--it was weak, so very weak, compared to the glaring, bloody eye of Venus, mocking us at the end of each day. Neptune had sometimes gone so far as beyond Pluto itself, into the great void of empty space. It was as large as Uranus, but the distance made the power of Water’s magic even weaker than Wind’s. Prismi was their only chance, and soon. The Court Magician’s efforts to find the Cherry Blossom had failed miserably. A nearby storm was threatening the coasts of Florida--could the ship have been sunk by it? Or were they just running late? It had been agreed that the Prince would meet the Princess at Gettysburg, and then they would all head off for Irkutsk. At least then it would get rid of that crazy Fisher. Nobody really understood him, he said strange things that would lead you around in circles and get you nowhere. He was supposedly very wise, but it didn’t help when nobody could understand him. Even Gale, with her talent for language, hadn’t deciphered Fisher’s speech. He drew strange parallels and ironies that no one else saw, gave new definitions to words, and generally was an embarrassment to the royal family. For Fisher was Charles’s older brother. He had aged quickly, Fisher, becoming white haired, using a walking stick, and with thick spectacles because of Fisher’s constant reading. Fisher’s other obsession was a strange game he had discovered from before the nuclear winters, which he called Chess. He had played and beaten everyone in the castle twice over, and yet he still played. He used his position to bully others into facing him, and his patheticness to inspire pity with the royalty, who also played and lost. But recently Fisher had been acting strangely. Even more strangely. It was best to get him as far away from the castle as possible, for his sake and their own.
  Charles sighed as he viewed the cost estimates for raising a new division in Ohio. The war with Venus would be short.

  During a renewed attack upon the castle walls, five black-clad assassins emerge from a secret tunnel into the castle. . .The Men-at-arms are intent on defending the walls, the stealthy figures are overlooked. They do not crouch in shadows and skulk, but rather make their way quickly through the silent castle corridors. They know the location of the Princess’s bedchamber. Orders had stressed that more failures would not be permitted, the assassins moved quickly. The door had been reinforced, it would take minutes to bash it down. One of the skulkers brandished a red swirling sphere, a gift from the Fire Magi. A Fire Sphere, and trapped inside it was the pure essence of their patron goddess. The Assassin hurled the ball against the door, and it exploded into a fireball, blasting open the door and sending splinters like deadly darts spraying about. The assassins were quick. Their blades were already out, leaping through the doorway towards Gale’s bed. Indeed the princess of water was there, no longer asleep--struggling in her nightgown to sit upright and cast a spell. An assassin raised his arm to throw, and cried out in pain as Hydrosphere engulfed it with acidic water. A second assassin struck out against the elemental, but it flitted away, reshaping into a spike and freezing into ice. Even as the second black-clad figure fell to the ground, his eye impaled by Hydrosphere, the other three leaped towards Gale. Speaking the words of magic, Gale slammed a wall of ice in-between the assassins and her bed. The assassins nimbly turned aside, in time to see the vengeful Waterball deal a far mightier, far more powerful portion of Neptune’s magic upon the foes. Chittering the words of magic, a great torrent of water slammed the enemy against the wall, either crushing them to a pulp or slicing them open upon the jagged shards of ice. One member of the team still lived, his hand melted to a stump, rolling and crying in pain. The interrogators would have a use for him. Gale swallowed hard, the sheer brutality emblazing itself into her brain. Once again, the elemental had saved her life. The second time in this week. The hundredth time in her life. Gale shuddered. The sound of armoured troops running closer told her that all was well, and so she allowed herself to faint.

  Seagulls. Vistan recognized that cry, the cry of birds that lived on land. Soon, other sounds reached his ears: the ebb and flow of the tide, the clanging of other boats as they docked, and the tread of leather boots upon the ceiling. No, the deck. Which meant they had made it. The Cherry Blossom had survived. Uranus had come through for them. Vistan would have laughed, but his head hurt too much to make a sound. His eyes swam with the memory of the hammer-stroke. Had he been taken out in battle? What had he been doing, engaging in combat instead of using his magic? Magic. Vistan was a magician. He wore green robes, a green cloak, and carried a staff. And yet, he remembered nothing, he couldn’t even sense the power inherit in all wizards. His magic was gone! The salty air was thick and suffocating, but he couldn’t move. It hurt! The heavier sound of clanking armour was heard overhead, in fact, it was coming down the stairs. A knight, clad in battered but workable steel, walked to his side. “He’s still out of it, my liege. This. . .backlash. . .do you know of any recoveries?” Boomed a low voice.
  “There are many such cases. Lars is looking better already. The wizards saved our lives. We can’t go on without them.” It was the voice of a bard, a minstrel, a voice that captivated and held the listener, until he wanted to sigh in disappointment when it came to an end. His Prince’s voice.
  “Here, lad, drink this.” Gust pried open Vistan’s cracked lips and put a waterskin to his mouth, letting it trickle in so that there was no need to swallow. And with the water, the dwarven smiths quit banging upon his head, and the boy of the prophecies opened his eyes. “Prince! We feared that you had died!”
Both of the men jumped back, “Herkam protected me, though he was more injured than myself. I profess I can not take as much as any of you.” Gust consoled Vistan, helping him rise.
  “Where are we?” Vistan clutched his head, the pain stabbing and mind numbing.
  “Bermuda. Shrouded by mist for all time. . .A focal point of both Neptune’s and Venus’s power. That is why this place has been fought over for the past thousand years.”
  “Venus?” Vistan asked incredulously.
  “Underneath the waves is a great volcano, which is why compasses go wild, and magnetism becomes very strange.”
  “Prince. Prince. I don’t recall. I can’t remember!”
  “It will all return in time. Here, if you get up now I can get you a real bed with fresh sheets and cool air.”
  “How long? I mean, how long have we been here?”
  “Not as bad as you might have thought. We’ve been at port for a week, now. It was two or three days after the battle that we got here, by Uranus’s will we weren’t discovered.”
  “We were invisible.” Vistan muttered, rolling out of his hammock and to his feet. “And Lars? Is he well?”
  “He sacrificed as much as you, I’m afraid. Lars hasn’t revived from his coma.” Gust was astonished to see the face of the boy twist so violently in reaction. Vistan laughed, he couldn’t stop. “To think--” another wave overtook him. “You!” Vistan bent over, trying to get some breath. “You are the best wizard we’ve got!”

  The Prince bought a new boat, and from Bermuda they traveled to the mainland, the Wasser Reich. Herkam had sold his armour to raise enough money to get the schooner, and Gust had to part with some of his own valuables as well. Lars was looking better, but he hadn’t woken even upon entering Philadelphia. The boat smoothly glided to a halt, hardy men tying it to posts with ropes, and the gangplank slid to the ground. At long last, they had arrived. Gust wondered if Earth had assaulted the eastern provinces yet. Many of those areas held an affinity with Earth already, dating far back to before the nuclear winters when they were all one nation--Wind wouldn’t put up much of a fight for them. He shook his head. There was nothing he could do now but make sure he met his part of the deal. They must join on the altar of the Eternal City in true love, or the element of Prismi will be replaced by Vernichtum. Obliteration. The Prince shaded his eyes from the hot sun, trying to get a sense of direction in this humongous town. Philadelphia, and he didn’t know a single word the people were saying. It was expected Lars would craft a translation spell, for what was speech but the rushing of air through the mouth, shaped by tongue and throat? But Gust did not know that spell, nor did Vistan even if he had before. The Prince was at a loss. Herkam came to the Prince’s side, grimacing as usual. “What do we do with the wind mage?”
  “I suspect we find a healer. Water is the best-versed element for such things, though come to think of it elemental magic isn’t much for healing at all.”
  “Yes, but how?” The Prince shrugged, indicating the great morass of people walking through the streets. Then Vistan approached, wherever he moved, the crowd paused and looked after him, trying to get a glimpse of his unearthly eyes once more. His Uranian eyes. “Have any of you noticed those ‘soldiers’?” Herkam’s gaze nonchalantly swept the area, taking the ruffians in with a bunch of other miscellaneous junk. “I see what you mean,” he hissed. “If they come at us, Prince, don’t do anything, got that? Venusian assassins are probably skulking all over the place. One thing about the Kingdom of Fire, they are incredibly thorough. They could see an ice cube melt and they’d need more evidence before they admitted it was above freezing.” The men seemed to be minding their own business, playing cards, but their quick looks assured the trio that the brigands had spotted easy foreign prey. “Vistan, step away. You’re probably more likely to hit me with that stick of yours than one of them.”
  “I can help!” Vistan whined. “I know what this staff can do. I don’t need to channel if I have it, and Gust has been trying to teach me.” Herkam snapped a gaze at the prince. “No doubt at the time he should be sleeping. Prince, for the good of Wind, you must look to your own needs!” The Prince frowned. “This will have to wait until later, here they come. The three kept walking, the band of cutthroats going a tad quicker, encircling them. Gust warned, “Remember, we are the aliens here. It will be all our fault if we do anything without ample provocation. Until they actually attack, armsmaster, don’t even say a bad word.” Herkam muttered, his arm kept away from his sword. They didn’t exactly know where the road led, but the castle far ahead seemed as good a location to go as any. And suddenly, the thieves were upon them. They hadn’t tried to get the law on their side as the heroes had expected, the vicious attack caught even Herkam off guard. With wicked-looking short swords, Vistan was the first victim. His staff deflected the majority of the blow, the blade knocked up and merely grazing his arm. Vistan tried to get out of the way of the rest so that he could cast his spell. Gust aggrievedly stayed away. And like a fiery whirlwind, Herkam, armsmaster of the Lehrer division, the trainers of the entire army of the Wind Reich, attacked. Two went down with his first swipe, a third’s lunge found himself with a broken arm, and the fourth tripped to the dusty, hard ground. Vistan fell into the trance that was so instinctual backlash hadn’t stripped it away from him, and spoke words that seemed newly complex and at the same time boringly simple, “Vento, spazzare loropiede dagli terra!” A sea breeze seemed to be caught by a divine hand and hurled at the robbers, either unsettling their balance so that all they could do was try to stand, or knocking them to the dusty ground. That was all Herkam needed, his blade taking advantage of the enemy’s lack of guard. What was left of the band of thieves ran for the dark alleys and side streets, and Herkam cleaned his blade on the clothes of one of his victims. “Let’s try to find a place to hole up before word of this reaches any of Venus’s ears.” Gust suggested, looking back at the commoners staring at him. “The castle is the best place to go still, once we reach there we will be safe, and my sword will make sure we reach there.” Vistan caught a note of strain in Herkam’s voice. Maybe the armsmaster wasn’t so cold after all. To kill so many, and have their blood spray upon your clothes. . .Maybe Lars wouldn’t think much of it, but it still horrified Vistan. Vistan tried to ignore his shoulder as he wrenched his gaze from the mangled corpses--they could find a healer at the castle, for Lars and himself.
  But Gust needn’t have worried about safety, for the word did spread, and no one was ready to fight Herkam after that. “Now, I know wizards don’t need to sleep much. But my prince, you are hardly a wizard. You need as much sleep as the average man, and I can’t have you disabling yourself even before the battle begins. Vistan shouldn’t even be here, especially if he persists in harming you like this. We can arrange for his transportation home, it is far too dangerous for him to tag along anymore. Venus has already discovered us, there’s no way a mere boy can survive this.”
  “ ‘And in the day of our greatest danger, when the Rhine runs with blood, and the forests burn so that the sun can not be seen, and the Kingdom of Wind shatters from the thunderbolt of Jupiter--Then shall come a boy with eyes as green as Uranus’s swirling clouds, and with him, our salvation.’” Gust chanted in a voice of reverence. His voice was full of such awe that one could not help but be swayed by it. It was the Prophecy, told by the first Archmage and recited down throughout the history of the Reich. A Prophecy that Vistan was fated to fulfill. Gust said nothing else, nor did Herkam. The matter was settled. Vistan remembered the next paragraph that followed the first, the Archmage had told him that upon his apprenticeship, and the two were the only ones who knew it. Vistan bit his lip. How could he save the world when he couldn’t even channel the magic without the aid of his staff? He had already failed, the fate of Wind was sealed forever. All hope already lost. Lars! Why don’t you recover? You’re our last hope; a swordsman cannot protect Gust forever. The three remaining heroes entered the castle without question. Gust was glad, for he could not understand a single word the guard said. He hoped there was a translator somewhere in the castle. But before Gust has guessed the location of the throne room, a tall, strong man almost ran towards them, bedecked even more lavishly than Gust himself. “Halo! Wir haben ihnen erwartet!” Gust jerked at the words of his tongue. Here was one who spoke the language of the Wind Reich. Two soldiers flanked the prince as he reached Gust. “What has happened? You were supposed to be here a week ago! Gettysburg is under siege, the Princess nearly slain a dozen times when she should’ve been safely away a long time ago! We have waited and waited, and Fire gains in strength by the day.”
  “Our ship was attacked by the greatest force Venus could muster a few days before we reached port, we were lucky to have survived. We just arrived here today, and we need healing and rest for our wizards.”
  “There is no time! I march for Gettysburg tomorrow, to relieve our defenders from the hordes of Fire. You must come with me and join with Gale. If your companions can not make the journey, they will have to stay here.” The man said it in such a tone that obviously nothing Gust could say would change his mind. The man spoke with such confidence that all who listened would obey, Gust doubted he could comprehend incompliance. Unfortunately, the other was right. If the princess was in danger, than she must be removed from it as swiftly as possible. The fate of his friends was nothing compared to the fate of both kingdoms, which depended on the survival of Gale. Gust nodded tiredly. “We will march with you, Rider of the Dolphins. At the least, though, you can have someone see to him,” Gust gestured towards the figure shrouded in green cloaks and robes. Thorand tried to hide the shock that all people first felt when looking directly into Vistan’s eyes. “Of course.” Thorand turned to the nearby guard and spoke the language of the Wasser Reich. The man promptly left. “He will fetch a court mage. The magic of water has a slight power of healing. As the conjunction approaches, so too does our power wax. It would take the Archmage to do some things a couple years ago that now even the meanest mage can accomplish with ease. That pinprick should be simple to deal with. As for the other’s wound, though, I am not sure if we have a wizard of good enough caliber among us to see him fit for tomorrow.”
  “What do you mean, the other? All of us are fine--” Gust looked confusedly towards Herkam, and gasped to see his right side soaked in blood, a great patch of darkness showing through his leather armour. Herkam had tried to hide it, but now he swayed dangerously. “By Uranus! Herkam, why didn’t you say something!” Speaking far too softly, Herkam answered, “There was nothing to say. . .nothing you could do until we reached the castle. . .had to hide it lest minions of Venus took notice and knew we were easy prey. . .”
  Thorand looked uneasy. “We can save him. Do not worry overly much. Such a man does not give in to death easily. If only I could use the magic as easily as my sister!” Even despite the situation, Gust became newly surprised. “She’s a wizard?” Thorand nodded distractedly. “The duties of ruling do not weigh on her so greatly. She has had time to learn much of the ways of Neptune. For me, though, it is either war or legislation, what free time I gain I use to relax in a good hunt. Becoming a wizard would burn me out on top of all the rest. But now I wish I had!” His gauntleted fist pounded into his open hand. As if on cue, the guard came with a blue-garbed wizard in tow. Barely bowing to his prince, the mage rushed to Herkam’s side, pouring a flask of clear liquid onto his wound. All it seemed to do was cause even greater pain to Herkam, who jerked at the liquid’s touch. “A flask of healing.” the mage breathily explained. “Found in any common item store, water from the Great Lakes. The purest types can bring men from the brink of death to complete health--this is the best I could find on short notice. My magic should be able to do the rest.” And with that, his words changed from Wind to the words of Magic: “Neptune, tornaread questo forza efiato!” Herkam’s breath seemed to become steady and regular. “He sleeps,” the wizard stated, and with that he sighed. “And now for you, fellow mage. Soon, I hope we will all be of one element--but for now I shall do what you can not.” “Guarirelo.” And the pain Vistan had been clamping his teeth down to ignore ebbed away, as if reluctantly. He rolled his arm, testing if the shoulder was still tender, and found that it was just a little tight. A few days of good sleep would make it as good as new. He could travel for tomorrow, if neither Herkam nor Lars was up to it. Now Vistan asked, “You say there are waters that can heal even the greatest wound. Could you revive a victim of backlash?” The wizard slumped, “Backlash is different, my friend. It is a complete draining of all a body’s resources. Without the will to survive and heal, the water can’t do it. Those who suffer from backlash must first regain their spirit before we can regain their strength. Sometimes they never do.” The wizard bowed his head; backlash seemed to plague the lives of all wizards. Even if they hadn’t themselves been struck by it, friends and companions who they had trained with or under would inevitably be claimed by it. The pact all mages made with Backlash for the power was a cruel and merciless thing. Vistan shared in the silent grief, but then raised his head. “We must at least bring him from the ship to the castle, will you detail some men to retrieve him?” Thorand nodded, and spoke his own tongue once again. The nearby guard left immediately. The Prince turned back, “Have you then no wizard who can translate for you?” Gust blushed, “No.”
  “Then do not worry, for Gale is as well versed in foreign tongues as myself. Until you set up a spell, she can act as interpreter.” Gust nodded. The words of his father ringing through his head, “ ‘they must marry on the altar on the day of alignment with true love, otherwise, we all die!’” Could he love this princess? It was not enough to go through the motions, the altar would know. A wizard, a translator, what other talents did she have? Could he get along with such a girl? At the heart of it all, even if they did reach Spa, without the union the only element produced would be Vernichtum--utter obliteration. If she was like Thorand, he did not know. He always thought royalty should absolve their arrogance to reach a common rapport with the people. Would Gale be so commanding, so intent that all should obey her, as her brother? Would she try to control him, the Prince of the Wind Reich? Gust kept his troubles to himself. First they must reach Spa, if Uranus wills, the rest would fall in line. With the Incarnate so near, maybe Uranus’s blessing would reach out to the Prince as well.

  As the sun broke across the horizon, a great legion marshaled. The army stretched at least a mile wide, and the sound of jingling armour, snorting and prancing horses, and the occasional exchanged word created an environment of controlled chaos. At the forefront, the Princes of Wind and Water were already mounted and arguing over tactics for the upcoming battle. Next to the Prince was the Armsmaster, haggard but firm. Someone had scrounged up mounts for the Prince of Wind and his companions, and so all was ready an hour into the morning. The sound of the trumpet cut off all remaining relaxation, and the cavalry formed into tight ranks stretching miles back. Then, a banner was raised, the Arched Dolphin, personal symbol of Prince Thorand, and another tune was played. Thorand raised a gauntleted fist, and then lowered it down with a great shout, one echoed by the rest of the army: “MARCH!” And so left the Prince from the city of Philadelphia. Within three days, they would reach the capital city. Gust only hoped Gale would be alive by then. The bright sun mocked the armies of Water, as it burned brightly overhead, and the cavalry rode forth at a quick walk--there was still a great distance to traverse.

  “I do say good man, don’t you know who I am?” A white-haired, bespectacled crone shouted. The object of his rantings flinched as a great stone crashed into the battlements, making the entire wall shake with the impact. “Elder brother to the King! Why, I could execute you for high treason for this sort of disobedience!” The old man seemed to have not even noticed the brush with death.   
By Neptune, old man! I can not play some silly game now, don’t you see we’re under attack?!” The guard exclaimed.
  “Silly game! Why, I never! Chess is the game of the ages. It dates so far back that not even Spa can remember! Phwaw, you would not recognize greatness if it smacked you across the face, soldier. What good is a sword when you don’t even know how to command your armies?”
  “Sir,” A Flame Mammoth trumpeted a deafening blast in a dying scream, bubbling oil pouring down its flanks. “Sir! The walls are under attack, you must leave and let me defend the gate!”
  “Ah, but one never need do anything--there is always an option, my lad, and whatever one does is what one wants to be done. So you see, no one must do anything, they simply perform what they feel like. And I believe I don’t want to leave.” The soldier looked uneasily at the man even now setting up a chessboard. “You are crazy! I’m not playing this, this chess, and you could be the King himself for all I care!” A scaling ladder secured itself on a crenellation, but the Soldier tipped it off as quickly as it appeared. “There now, I will even let you be white, my good fellow.” the old loon now muttered to himself, but to the soldier’s shock a white piece moved completely independently, floating a square ahead. “Ah, typical for such an ignorant brute as yourself. And you call yourself a captain! Ha! You probably haven’t even seen a chess board before in your life.” The crazy man became intent on the game, furrowing his brow as he found a way to reach checkmate in eight turns. . .
  Commander Gesper swore, slapping his glove across the stump of his saddle. Fair Venus would have blushed red from such words. He lowered his telescope and slammed it back into his saddlebag. “Damn it all, but I thought our Mammoths could have broken through. What is that vile concoction they are using?” A nearby aide spoke up, “Sir, I believe it is only mundane, boiling oil. As you know, oil burns, and any Venusians who come into contact with such things are drained of their life force, as the fire changes from magical to earthly, and the creature dissolves away.”
  “I’m sure they’ve been saving this for the ripest time all week. Is there any word from the king?”
  “Nothing, sir.” Gesper was about to swear some more, when a highly ranked officer nearby suddenly convulsed and fell from his horse. By the time he reached the ground, it was too late. His face wore a surprised rictus of death. “Water cannot do such a thing! What ungodly power resides in those damned walls, that they can strike a man so far away and with nothing visible, and yet here is his corpse?”
  Across the battlefield, a rasping, high-pitched laughter reached Gesper. “Ha ha! Checkmate!”
  The armies of the Fire Kingdom grudgingly retreated out of range of enemy bow fire, and began to set camp once more. The city had held itself admirably, the victorious soldiers flinging helmets from their head, exposing sweat-soaked faces to the cold wind. The assaults upon the wall had been numerous and unpredictable, but every time the men had held, and reinforcements would be arriving soon. It seemed that Gettysburg, and the Kingdom of Water itself, would live for a time longer. Charles only hoped the Day of Alignment would be before that time. As he walked the battlements, seeing which walls needed repair and which ones could be left alone for the time being, a page ran up to his side, trying to pull off a proper bow and keep up with the King’s long strides at the same time. “Sire, Fisher wasn’t found in his room, and nobody in the city remembers seeing him!”
  “What’s the old fool gotten into now? Didn’t he say he was going to read all day? What happened to his escort?”
  “It seems he conked them over the head sire,” the page stated ashamedly, trying to cover for his elders, “that cane of his is all knobby and thick. They’re only getting up just now.”
  “Great. As if I didn’t have enough relatives to worry about already.” Then, turning to the lad, “Thank you, I’m sure he’ll turn up somewhere. And tell the guards to be a little more alert next time, and remember that they have two purposes for being there.” The Page left, scurrying towards the nearest staircase. Charles kept walking. If he wasn’t in the city or in the manor, that left the battlements. Charles knew Fisher could be that crazy. If he was dead, then he’d have been told. And if he wasn’t, then he’d used his authority to swear silence. . .The old man was going to make this as difficult as he could, obviously. Didn’t I assure him yesterday that he’d be leaving soon? Surely he didn’t walk out the gates in the middle of the battle! Well, once he reached a soldier he could browbeat him into telling all there was to tell. A King shouldn’t have to do this, he complained. But for the rightful heir, I guess even a king must scamper about after him. Why in the world would he want to join the battle? For old loons, logic simply didn’t apply. Maybe he wanted to play chess with our visitors, Charles joked.

  “Dead?” Bernardo lifted an eyebrow at the kneeling noble. The man visibly swallowed. “He fell into a trance, my lord, and then he fell off his horse and died. Almost like a heart attack, if I may say so.”
  “And did any others have such unfortunate ends?” The King queried, unperturbed.
  “As a matter of fact, my lord, six of the eight captains also died in the same manner, and fourteen brigade commanders assaulting the walls.”
  “It seems Neptune is granting greater favours to his children by the day. You are dismissed. Pablo! How does Water, a peaceful element, just make things die?” The court mage bowed. “As you know, sir, Water magic grows in strength by the day, as it approaches being in alignment with Earth. What we know of their magic may not apply any longer. Their archmage might have discovered a new weapon.”
  “Any fool could figure that out! What is the weapon, and how can it be countered?” The mage kept his eyes downcast. “If my lord wishes for me to investigate...”
  “Bah, and if this weapon is used on you? What rabble will I have left to honour Venus? Send someone you don’t like, someone disposable. I cannot afford the deaths of our leaders. Without leaders, an army becomes a mob, a mob ready and willing to flee at the first sign of danger.” The mage bowed, leaving the room. “Let Ricardo in.” A well dressed figure of red silks and bronze fringe proudly made his way to the ruby heart below the King’s throne. “My lord.”
  “Is the fleet ready?”
  “No my lord. Both the Iberian straight and the English channel are charnel houses for any fleet. I am not willing to throw Venus’s navy away on such a fruitless gesture.” The King stayed calm. Underlings who were loyal to their men and to Venus were far more valuable than underlings too obedient to do what they think is right. “And how do you expect to deal with these problems?”
  “France is heavily fortified and well defended, but the might of Fire will deal with it eventually. I want to make a land invasion somewhere on the coast, such as Pas de Calais.”
  “My brother, are you aware of another time such a thing was attempted?”
  “Yes my lord, and it succeeded.”
  “Ahhh. But you do not know why it succeeded. You see, back then, there was such a thing as Air Power. Bombers would hold down great forces, take out bridges and roads so that reinforcements could not arrive, and protect their navy from other ships and subs. When the British could make it no further, it was Air Power which completely obliterated the enemy and provided a breakthrough. What substitute do you have for this?”
  “Sir, I did not think of that. I suppose our Magic could--”
  “Magical supremacy is not a thing we can rely upon for long, commander.”
  “I beg time to reconsider, my lord. By the time I have the manpower for the attack, I shall present you with a detailed plan for your approval.”
  “Time is a commodity none of us can afford for long, Ricardo. I will expect a ready navy within two months.” The man bowed once more, and left the room. The King turned to an advisor who had faded into the shadows up until now. “And our land invasion, how goes that?”
  “Sir, the Kingdom of Water is more numerous and better equipped than ourselves. If we want to use the gift of Venus to best effect, I suggest we should attack immediately.”
  “And are your forces deployed?”
  “Yes sir, all across the border our armies stand ready.”
  “Then go with the blessing of Venus, Commander, and bring me victory!” The man bowed, and left the room. It was always like this, the King of Venus had much to do and many men to address. Now finally he could relax. “And you? What of Gale?” A nimbus of black detached itself from the wall. “Sleeping like a babe, and as safe, my lord.” Lastair spit contemptuously.
  “Do not worry yourself, assassin, there will be a time when you can try your own skills against the elusive princess. For now, I want you to pull out all of our forces at Gettysburg immediately.”
  “I’m afraid there will not be enough time to fully evacuate, sir. A force of cavalry has ridden hard and is perched upon our army’s rear. It will be much like Dunkirk, as long as we’re on the topic of French battles.”
  “Do what you can, Lastair. Do what you believe must be done. I do not want to order Gesper to give me back my legions.” The silent figure deigned not to bow, and left out the back door to avoid the eyes of the King’s guards.
  “Oh, one last thing my lord.” Even the king was startled, he could’ve sworn. . . But here was the same man standing in front of the throne. “It seems Wind is taking advantage of Earth’s sluggishness by sending a Dragonrider across the sea. She is heading straight for Gettysburg. Our besiegers have little defense against dragons.”
  “What about the wizards? Has Venus forsaken us?”
  “They’re doing all they can to stave off the Archmage’s attacks. I fear our navy will be sunk if we let the dragon rampage unhindered.”
  “And what is your solution, assassin?”
  “Release Voltaire.” Even the assassin’s voice quavered at the incantation of that name. Voltaire, the King thought shudderingly. A magical creature that had stalked the lands where Fire was at its strongest. The Kingdom of Fire had not always been envied by all the others for its magical concentration. When the first Venusians stalked the land, so strong that they could make entire cities erupt into flames, so vicious that thousands of the Heart Lancers were devoured. The prior archmage had died fighting the last of the Stalkers, and to hide the Kingdom’s weakness the entire time they had to pretend the things were not there, had to keep their armies threatening on the border, had to let thousands of villagers and commonfolk burn until even their bones became dust. Venus was always a jealous god, spiteful when she did not get her way. Finally, they had conquered their own lands, and were capable of conquering the world. And now Lastair wanted to release one back upon the world. “It took a hundred of our greatest wizards to bind Caras. He was so evil that if you go to Peru or Paraguay, farmers have a new word for death. And Claven? We had the Evening Star shining brighter than we ever hoped, and still the desolation in Argentina has made it our poorest state. How many died, simply to pacify him? All our armies together still could not slay the meanest of them, do you realize how very angry Voltaire will be?”
  “Sir, if I thought we had any other choice, I would not have asked. I’d rather have a thousand dragons than even Voltaire against us. But if we release him near Gettysburg, the first thing he will sense would be a rival elemental. Earth is simply the battleground of our patrons. Elementals hate each other more than any scum who have come to be on their own. He will forget about us, and Gettysburg might even be leveled. And if Venus wishes, we can do away with him afterwards.”
  “The risk is too great. I have not forgotten what the Stalkers could do, things that other people thought Fire had no part in. Meteors snatched from the stars and hurled upon the earth, frenzied mobs descending on the soldiers trying to protect them, such was the hatred and insanity imposed upon them by Claven. I’d rather my entire army be lost than face another Stalker. No, that threat at least shall be dormant forever.” Bernardo made it clear that that was the end of the discussion.
  “Then sir, perhaps we should not have attacked?” the dark figure said calmly.
  “I know that, Lastair! Do you think I had a choice?” The King was so angry, he had risen to his feet, his hands white from clutching the table, physically trying to stop himself from leaping at his servant’s throat. “The Day of Alignment comes, and if it does, it means either we all die or Water becomes the greatest power on the face of the Earth. How long would we last against Prismi, Lastair? How long could we live against Vernichtum? Our power-hungry fools are ready to risk everything, even the fate of all humanity, simply to gain an advantage over us. For the sake of the world, I must destroy them before they reach Spa. Even if our armies are unprepared and outnumbered, I must! And if I think the world is so doomed that it matters not whether a Stalker walks the Earth again, then I will let Voltaire free, Voltaire and all his cousins. But by Venus, I swear you are lucky to escape with your head for even suggesting such a thing!”
  Lastair bowed, still as silent and impassive as ever. Sometimes the King wondered if he was human, and shuddered at the thought of the other possibilities. “I shall carry out the King’s orders. I assure you that an army will return from Gettysburg, intact and prepared for your majesty’s disposal. And if you care to reconsider about Gale. . ?”
  “No.” The King rumbled, still hot with anger, only now getting a hold of himself. A moment ago, even the bronze statues of Venus seemed to have been red. He had heard of berserkers seeing like that. Fanatics so loyal to their patron planet that it was as if they lived on Venus herself, the books said, and saw with her eyes. “No. Just go.”

  Blue molten light cascaded down the length of Attu, as if the steel were so hot it lost all shape and form. But even as it seemed to melt away, the blade was still there all the same. Like water flowing around a rock, except the water was brighter than the sky, and the rock happened to be possessed by an elemental. The light outshone the afternoon sun. The giant bellowed a challenge that shook the earth, its eyes fearfully eyeing the pure face of Neptune. Attu seemed to vibrate in Thorand’s hand, as if it wanted to loose itself from its master’s hand and strike out against its cousin. A water giant, a phantasmal creature given strength and form from the power of magic, the ability to change the very laws of nature. Whether you had ten men or ten thousand, any mundane weapons would simply pass through the thing. Thorand kept his distance, keeping short rein on his horse. The confidence in his stature lent courage to his men, and Attu continued to work its magic. Now, instead of the light melding back into the sword at the hilt, the liquid light spread out into the air. The sunlight struck the growing globe of blue, and shattered, making a brilliant spectacle of reds and greens and violets. The giant, scared, charged. It was all Attu needed, the blade let loose the fury of Neptune, and a blue streak of energy defied the day and pierced the giant’s heart. For a moment, the Giant struggled to maintain its form, but then it collapsed, shredded apart by the sheer raw force of the same element that had given it life. What was before a being towering high above the trees was now a shower of innocent raindrops. Gust rubbed his eyes. By Uranus, what was that thing? An elemental weapon, he answered himself, that’s what, one of the greatest weapons ever to exist. Everyone in the Reichland heard the stories of Ossie’s Neriput armour and Vladeck’s Glerinde Tod. But those were simply magic weapons, enchanted things. Only as powerful as the maker. Elemental weapons were focus points of all the power of the patron planet, weapons bound with creatures of limitless power and strength. With such a blade, whole cities could be made as if they never were. Gust shuddered. What will happen if I am on the opposite end of such a weapon? What possible power is there that can confront an elemental? To stop thinking about it, Gust moved to speak with Thorand; by now the column had moved a good distance, and there was no evidence that there even was a battle just minutes ago.

  “Why is it that we haven’t met any other travelers on this road?” Gust asked Thorand as they rode side by side.
  Thorand was the only person Gust knew who could make a shrug look appropriate for a royal audience. “Rumours of war, of the land being overrun by the Kingdom of Fire. That will keep traders in their cities, at least until the siege of Gettysburg is lifted.”
  “Are you sure it is not because of what we met a bit ago?” Shimmering giants weren’t the only enemies Thorand had defeated during the march.
  “Dark things stalk the land. As Neptune comes closer, so does the magic gain in strength. Creatures born of such magic will continue to get stronger and more dangerous until the Day of Alignment. I only hope your party will be able to deal with such things. We are the land with the least magic, once you reach Asia, you will learn what dangerous means.” Thorand always was an eloquent speaker, Vistan noted, riding a slight ways back but within earshot. Next to him Herkam’s face struggled to not show the pain he obviously felt from the long, hard ride. He wondered if the prince was ever informal with anyone. Three days of hard marching interspersed with attacks from wandering beasts was not Vistan’s idea of the easy life. He would be surprised if he could ever walk normally again, the saddle hurt so. But Thorand planned to attack the next day, and his men seemed fit and ready to do just that. What kind of men were these people? The evening gloom lent a peaceful quality to the land, as the nighttime birds began to sing. He had always liked the night more, when the cool rush of wind rustling the leaves was the only sound to be heard. Whatever the element of wind incorporated, Vistan always thought of it as such a breeze in the night. Gust had tried to teach Vistan such rudimentary skills, but everything came so hard. He wished Lars were here. He wished he could still be on that boat, concentrating on improving his body and spirit so that he could channel more, no longer bothering about how to craft spells. But Lars had suffered more, the battle mage might never wake up. And without his master, Vistan always felt like an uninvited guest, intruding on things he should leave be. Maybe before he was a capable fighter, able to carry his weight. Gust told him of all the ships he’d sunk and spells he’d stopped, back then he was almost a wizard. Now what? A bastard, without memory or ability, living off the charity of his Prince. Vistan sometimes wondered why he had gone. What will Lars think, when he’s heard I’ve abandoned him to his fate? Such a vast land, this Wasser Reich. He could not imagine traveling so far with no hint of settlement. Days of just birds and trees and animals, such a wondrous place. . . “Vistan!”
  “Huh?” Vistan jumped, casting about for whoever said his name.
  “Stop daydreaming and get off your horse. We’re making camp. The enemy lies just over that ridge.” Herkam gestured at the green expanse in front of him, and looked at him disgustedly. I’m sure you did not look so contemptuous when I tore a ship apart, swamping it in waves even as the mast was ripped off and plunged into the sea. . . Vistan stopped, and gradually dismounted, trying to hide the aches and pains. Behind him he could hear echoing sounds from thousands of battle-hardened cavalry. People were already gathering around campfires to enjoy stories of old battles and beasts that they had managed to live through. Herkam had taken the Prince aside to argue on one matter or another, and Thorand was seeing to the proper establishment of camp order and cleanliness. Vistan saw Gust lay a consoling hand on Herkam’s shoulder, and smile. Herkam scowled in return, but walked away. Why not just look into his mind and see what this is all about? The thought went through his mind. Read minds! I didn’t even know wind could do that, much less know the language of magic well enough to know how! Some skilled musician played a few trial notes on his flute, to the thunderous applause of the men. Sweet, soothing music coaxed everyone into serenity, and soon the only sound was that of the small tube of worked silver. Vistan did not take much notice of it, inner turmoil drowning out the peaceful song. Battle, tomorrow, and all he could do was make the wind blow. Some saviour he was.
        2. The Hurricane Strikes.

Rain struck with the strength of a titan, lashing at the feeble works of man. It tore open roofs, drowned boats and docks, and scoured the land of crops and leaves. But it would be a gentle caress of the cheek compared to the wind. The great funnel flickered white or blue as great lightning bolts lanced across the sky, and wherever it touched houses, rocks, even trees would disappear, to fall a mile away, crushing and destroying even more upon impact. Even a great distance away, the wind reached such speed that houses would be stripped of thatch and rain would lash like whips against a child’s face. Hail, the size of good sling stones, smashed through sturdy buildings, snapped branches, and could kill a man. Wildlife hid in their forest dens, as nature hunted and struck out against all life, all order. Lars’s spell had grown, and now it ravenously set upon the land. All the elements-- fires caused by lightning thriving even under the rain, wind catching the fire and snapping trees like twigs, water drowning all things of value, and the Earth showering back down upon itself--had converged in one awe-inspiring act of rampaging violence.   But in other lands, the storm would have been greeted as a welcome relief. As if the hurricane were some signal from the celestial patrons, the world erupted into war. There were screams of dying horses, of dying men, blood caking the ground, and the bodies of the dead so many that the battle had to rage atop them. So it was with the armies of Earth, so numerous and so proud, wielding the magic of the Colossus. All across the land, battle was fought. In some places, the Kingdom of Wind fell, in others, it proudly held. Uranians, fleet and strong, were summoned to fill the gaps. As many died on that one day as they had in the last ten years. Earth always had more to pour into, a land though poor in resources, very rich in people. Wind, however, gasped at the cost, and knew that this was the beginning of the end. Outnumbered and outmagicked, it was only a matter of time. The King was only glad the armies didn’t know of the coming invasion from the opposite front, for surely they would surrender now if they knew the true desperation of the situation. At the end of the day, the moans of the dying sang in unholy worship to the cruel red planet. Patron of the Sword, Mars. Yet they held, for they came from a culture of bravery and discipline, and a martial tradition stretching back before the nuclear winter, before recorded time. Battle Mages sagged in exhaustion, trying to drag back their spirits from the realm where they’d offered them to in exchange for power, and regain the vigor in their limbs so that they could fight again the next day. Their dulled minds wished and thirsted for their only hope to counter the stones that had fallen from the sky, or the ground splitting beneath their feet, or the golems that waded through the ranks, breaking steel weapons as they struck their hides; the element that would be more powerful than both earth and fire: Prismi.
  And in the land of water, hordes of blood imps and trolls and goblins poured out from the mountains of Mexico and mocked the mundane defenders across the Grand River. The Kingdom of Fire had yet to lose a man, and still had breached a foothold into the Kingdom of Water. Such was the power of Venus, such was the advantage of the evening star’s closeness. And there, too, fleeing water mages who had just barely bogged down the enemy with mud and marsh wished and hoped for a patron planet grander than all the rest--Prismi.

  And in a distant city far away from either enemy kingdom, there too raged a battle. But just this once it was not Wind or Water which was outnumbered, but the shattered remnants of Gesper’s forces, broken upon the mighty walls of Gettysburg, and now seeking only escape.

  “Form ranks!” Thorand shouted, and a piercing trumpet call pierced the gray morn’. The clink of metal upon metal and the whinnying of horses too close for comfort dominated the field for a few minutes, and then all was silent. Gust sang:
  The fog a blanket shimmering,
the trees just shadows so tall,
the birds one could hear singing,
of beauty and life and such joy.”

And the earth so soft and giving,
the green shining in dew,
soil so rich and thriving,
but never as loving as you.”

The streams just a trickle,
but near so wild and strong,
vibrant with life and laughter,
but colder than the warmth inside you.”

A song of love and home, and the nervous tension that filled the air visibly diffused and relaxed. These men were ready to die, not from courage but sweet remembrance of the things that were and will be, no matter what happened this day. Sung from an ordinary mouth, such words would do little and sound foolish. Gust’s voice was a wondrous thing though, and where other’s fell short he conveyed emotions and feelings clearly and with artistry. Herkam rode up to alongside the prince of the kingdom of wind, and gruffly commented, “One would think you’d been to the valley of music, my lord. I’ve heard of strange things that could happen under the tune of a bard. They say the harp can put peace into the heart of heartless beasts.”
  “Perhaps the bards know of something far grander and more wondrous than magic. Or perhaps music is an element in and of itself. But never tell me that music is merely a spell of Wind.” With that the Prince spurred his horse forward a little ways to meet with Thorand, who had already ordered his forces into deployment.
  “Prince! Hold a moment, hold, and let me summon aid from an unforeseen corner of the realm.” Thorand looked quizzically at his comrade, but waited impatiently, keeping his prancing horse from galloping into the foe. Gust was a wind mage, and a fighter, and perhaps a bard; More so than all of that, though, he was a man attuned to nature. He could talk to animals, and summon the aid of all of Earth’s children. He let his thoughts wander, projected his mind into the surrounding area. Searching, searching. . .There. Deep forest still surrounded the city of Gettysburg, forest rife with raptors, foxes, wolves, even wildcats and bears. Death to all those who flee. Death to the ones in red. Kill the ones that flee, do not let them reach their boats! And since the wildlife knew and trusted the Prince, they did not question his words, and formed a cordon around the area. Those versed in military tactics soon learned that victories were not earned at the end of the battle, enemies not vanquished once they left the field. In two days those same men fleeing would be back again. Pursuit was the key. March day and night into the open area, catch or kill the shattered remnants of the enemy, don’t let them reform, and then and only then will you have won a battle. But that called for men who hadn’t just force marched from the early dawn to the gloomy eve in the saddle, and then sent off to do battle. When one couldn’t pursue, make sure the enemy cannot flee. Aside from the panic caused by attacking from the rear, when an enemy breaks in such cases it has no escape, and is obliterated. They already had them nicely between city and avenging prince, but with both sides screened by wildlife, there would be no escape. Gust nodded toward Thorand, and Thorand raised his bright, electric blue sword into the air. A trumpet blast echoed through the heights. Far in the distance, the sounds of answering trumpets emerged from the city. The cavalry charged.

  “Fisher! Curse you brother, get over here! What do you think you’re doing?” Charles was not in the best of moods. His daughter would have been dead if only she hadn’t decided to study all night with her magic tutor. Wizards didn’t need as much sleep as other people, and Charles was only glad the enemy did not know she was one. A purple, choking fog filled the room that brought instant and painful death to the maid who first opened the door. The choking fog had spread out then into the halls, and the guards always at her door fell clutching their throats. Who knows how far the deathly air would have spread if not for the quick work of the court mages. But that was the end of it. His son would attack within the day, the siege would finally be lifted and the Kingdom could live without fear once more. And his brother wouldn’t be around to see it!
  “Fisher, if you don’t come out from your nooks and crannies this instant then you’ll never leave the castle! Mark my words, Gale will do well enough without you!” He really didn’t expect any answer, but one came.
  “My brother. Such a fine day, a fine day for Chess, don’t you think?” An old man seemed to emerge from the shadows, all tattered rags and wild hair. His breathing was labored and painful, his face could not hide the occasional grimace. Worriedly, his younger brother came to him. “What happened? Why didn’t the infirmary see to you? It is almost what you deserve standing out in the middle of battle. Here, I will bring you to a healer, and there they can soothe your wounds.” Half supporting, half dragging the rightful heir, Charles did not notice his brother’s protests.
  “Not the battle.” Fisher laughed, a strange glint in his eye. “Oh, not from any battle! From Chess, you see. Chess!” The man laughed again. “Schack!” He almost doubled over. Charles stood trying to help. The man was crazy. “Shock? What are you talking about. You’re hurt!”
  “I always won, you see. I played and won. But every time they took a piece, they took a part of me with them. A fraction of my life. A fraction, but I took their whole!” Fisher grinned in triumph.
  “You’re delirious, brother. I will talk to you after the battle, and maybe we can play chess then. You must go to the hospital.” But with surprising wiry strength, the old geezer wrenched himself free.
  “I can’t play chess with anyone. Not anymore. Not unless I want them dead. I think I’ve done something strange. Something abstract, different from all the magic in the solar system. I’ve projected reality into a different plane, where your armies are yourself, and death for them is your own demise. How many did I checkmate? They didn’t even know how to play. But they changed the rules!” Fisher hissed angrily, “They did not tell me. . . It doesn’t matter, really. As long as my king lives, I live. But the pain, Charles! So much blood and pain. . .” Charles grabbed him again. He was crazy. Chess was the source of his wounds. Who ever heard of a lifelink between people and their Chess pieces? Absurd. He’d heard of bloodlinks using Fire magic, but that was between living creatures. No, Fisher was speaking gibberish.
  “I killed them. I searched for the brightest people I could find, searched for all the best chances of a good Chess game, and every time I won I could feel him--die.” The King of Water stopped short. Twenty-one officers, one the commanding general, mysteriously found dead with no visible injury. The best and the brightest Fire had to offer. Charles wanted to throw up. His brother suddenly, with a snap of a finger, could kill anyone and anything on the face of the Earth, no one could play up to his skill at the game.
  “But it drains. I had to stop. I was so hurt and I felt like having run twenty miles uphill and it was getting hard to concentrate or think like a man. . .The last Chess game I had to live with the pain of losing my queen, my queen! As if my lung burst from that, just so I could finish the game quicker.” Charles never let on to his thoughts, he still dragged his brother towards the medical house, where the healing waters of Lake Superior could be found. Magic, his brother was a magician. And just like Neptune, his patron required equal energy from spirit, body, and mind for the spell. A spell unlike any other before. So he was mortal. There were limitations even for him. He would be traveling with Charles’s daughter. Maybe he wouldn’t be excess baggage at all. Maybe Hydrosphere itself would flee before facing this old loon leaning on my shoulder.
  A lilting, high tune sang its way from the distance. His son had come home. He could pick out the twinkling blade of Attu more than a mile away. How bright must it be for those riding alongside him? Charles wondered. He could remember the day that blade was put into his son’s hand still in the cradle, and the baby had cried from touching the cold metal. He remembered how the elemental had glowed and pulsed in frustration until the Archmage reverently resheathed the thing. Out of all their armoury, that one sword could cause more destruction than all the others combined. It took an act of supreme will to control such power, but their trust in the prince had paid itself back ten-fold. Attu had almost sunk all of California beneath the waves before the Archmage bound it. Someday maybe he would ask the man how he did it. A tale surely as grand as any of Losort’s travails. Charles thought back to what he knew of Elementals, depressingly very little. Elementals could only be bound to swords, nobody knew why. Elementals were immortal, as long as the planets washed the Earth in their magic, the Elementals lived on. The only way to defeat one was to bind it, control it and then harness its energy for your own purposes. Attu was one such enemy. It was said the creation of Elementals had never been learned, despite heavy work in that field for maybe the first hundred years of the Kingdom. Wizards theorized that the reason was Elementals were too alive. That the patrons and mother Earth would not allow humanity to have the power of Creation. Elementals seemed to come to be when areas under intense radiation are drenched in magic, and then put under heavy pressure. The most common Elementals were Fire, for the most magical energy was fire, but they were all so rare that wizards claim there remains only one free elemental upon the face of the Earth, the first known elemental not on a quest to kill and destroy, but to protect and serve. Not to mention the smallest one. That one would make sure his daughter reached Spa and saved her country. The harsh blare of the answering trumpeter snapped him from his revelry. His son’s Pearl Lancers were closing the distance quickly. Now was the time to mount a second charge from the city gates. He needn’t have worried, for his generals had it well in hand. The cavalry had been marshaled earlier that day in expectation of the attack, and was even now pouring out from the city gates. All was well in hand. Charles turned to his older brother, “Here, Fisher, just lean on my arm. Don’t worry, we’ll have you all healed up for tomorrow.” They made their way slowly down from the battlements as a bestial challenge reached the royalty from high in the sky and a flash of blue-green streaked towards the ground. Elementals, lifelinks, and now dragons! Neptune save us from what comes next.

  Damn totalitarian chauvinist! She would show the wretched being, show what being a dragon rider was all about! Banished from the ranks of the Dragon Knights, an outcast from the rest of the army. They had actually ordered her to give her dragon over. As if Iyrtu had not always been Siplar’s dragon. As if some other ten-year-old girl had squeezed through the fissure in the cave and seen the most beautiful creature upon the face of the earth. As if Iyrtu had not chosen her as mother, daughter, lover, and confident that fateful day. They had no power over her. She owed the asses nothing, and so she had fled to find her own way in life. Their own way. Siplar leaned down her saddle to hug his neck briefly, but the warm thoughts were soon replaced by hot anger once more. She’d barely even touched the fool who couldn’t control his own dragon well enough to keep him from biting Iyrtu. She couldn’t just stand by and see him hurt, it’s his fault that he got knocked off his dragon! Damn all fools and pigs! Siplar punched the swirling blue green scales, shimmering with colors and patterns. The dragon snorted in agreement. Iyrtu was still angry, as the scars seemed to be permanent and he was a very vain beast. It was all Siplar could do to keep him from launching himself at his kin at the time. Long, flowing blond hair was caught by the wind, occasionally dropping or tossing with the currents. The bitter cold and the thin air seemed to have no effect on the girl, as she took little notice of the whipping, freezing air throwing her back in her saddle. Her heavy armour left her limbs completely bare and exposed to the elements, but her flesh was still a fair white and her manner was completely belying any discomfort. One would say she was beautiful, until they got a good luck at her eyes. Then they wouldn’t even be sure she was human. All Dragon Knights seemed to form a special bond of kinship with their steeds, but Siplar and Iyrtu had been together far longer than the time she enlisted into their ranks. Siplar had always been a loner, but by now her heart was more dragon than woman. Her only love in life was bearing her upon the base of his neck. Siplar’s frame was not that of one who could casually carry the great lance stretching as far as Iyrtu’s neck and ending with a heavy metallic tip: The substance gathered in the great deadly waste of Africa that would never break, blunt, or rust and was usually highly poisonous to the touch, but she had the strength to wield it. She laid a placating hand on the neck of her dragon, and pushed gently to indicate she wanted down. Iyrtu trumpeted gaily, and folded his wings back to his body. When before the wind rushed, now it tore and pushed with the strength of a dozen titans. Siplar was almost pushed off the back even as she fell forward. She laughed and sent out her own cry, caught by the wind and flitted away that it was as if she had never made a sound. The pounding in her eyes drowned out all other noise, there was only the wind, and the warm saddle that was the only reason she was still alive. Blue eyes flashed in glee as Iyrtu plummeted towards the Earth. . . And then the dragon dragged itself back away from its nose dive, with all its might pushing up against the wind, and the wings snapped back, for thick leather covering protected the membranes that would be ripped apart by the fierce wind alone. The great green landscape sprawled out before her, mountains could be seen in the distance, and in a few moments, she spotted the enemy. Banished from the ranks of Dragon Knighthood! She was the greatest Dragon Rider ever to live! It was time to gain her proper glory in the world. Dragon Knight my ass, if I ever choose to return they’ll coronate me Empress! A great roaring squeal poured out from Iyrtu’s mouth, and Siplar readied her lance. The impact was going to be hard. . . .And then she was among them, the Flame Mammoth bellowing its death cry as the lance pierced straight through. Iyrtu landed roughly, his concentration entirely on surviving the descent. Great claws sunk into the Earth, and ripped the Earth in deep gouges as Iyrtu slowed his headlong rush to a halt. Soldiers screamed in terror at the great beast and simply tried to get out of the way. A wizard was holding a fire-wreathed staff and shouting gibberish. Let him try, she thought amusedly, the scales of a dragon will spread the heat throughout his body, making whatever flames summoned virtually harmless. Siplar screamed, more dragon than human, laying about her with the lance that weighed perhaps 60 pounds as if it were no more than a sword. Iyrtu’s maw spewed out a great blast of arctic wind, caking the area with ice and burning humans caught within the blast, and his tail lashed and whipped, smashing bodies without even slowing itself down. Where the pair went, blood and death followed in its wake, and men ready to die facing other men now panicked, seeing they could not even harm the great beast. Siplar ventured at this rate that she could have won the battle on her own. But she was not alone. A line stretching across the horizon of heavy cavalry swept down the hills towards the rest of Fire’s men, and from the city poured yet more cavalry, ready to catch the army in a pincer movement. They lowered their own lances to level with the helpless footmen, and at the moment of impact blue light conquered the rising sun.

  . . .Far away, the elements ripped and tore and burned and lashed, and the earth roared in pain.

3. The Heroes Unite!
  “Your majesty, the elven ambassador seeks your audience.” Shouted a page from the doorway entering the throne room. Charles swallowed a few curse words that would have put the roughest backcountry farmers to embarrassment. Back already? But I sent her away just weeks ago! Isn’t that forest in Colorado? By Neptune, that girl would have had to travel as fast as the wind! This ruins everything! Before the King could send back a suitable reply, Laura had already walked in. Charles was about to ask what she’d done to the guards, but his words, and all his thoughts, were swept away as his eyes fell upon her. This tall, slender, graceful practitioner of the ways of the ninja was by definition the most beautiful girl ever to set foot upon the Earth. Not the opinion of maybe one or two lovesick boys, but in fact the most beautiful to everyone. Husbands married for decades still could not help but stare mouth wide if she walked nearby. Her every move, every detail, every spoken word, every smile was utter perfection. Here was beauty no work of nature, no work of art, could ever rival. To the point that touching that body was a defilement, a fouling of an otherwise crystalline stream, fed by cold melting snows untred by man, racing across ground unseen, supporting life man had never killed. . . To the point that no man seeing her feels anything but awe, and even the women forget all worries and concerns to enjoy the single moment of her passage that stretches into an eternity of utter peace.
  “Ahem.” Laura coughed politely, even that supposedly harsh sound was like the sweet burble of a mountain stream in her voice. Wrenching his eyes off of her, feeling like a part of his soul was torn away from him as he did so, he tried to remember what he was about to say.
  ‘Oh! Oh, yes. What is your report?” Charles felt like a clumsy oaf, an unmannered commoner who hadn’t washed in months. For compared to her, the way she stood so lightly and was so harmonious with her surroundings, even a king can look the fool. Laura smiled at his struggling to regain his balance, which only threw him off even more. The worst part about it all is she was innocent of any manipulation or guile. She knew the effect she had on men, but she didn’t try to be beautiful any more than the next girl. Living among the elves had given her a grace humans never gained on their own, a fluidity of motion that made every step, every cock of the head or blinking of the eye, a work of magnificence that made one want to simply die so as to never have his vision tainted by the ordinary world again. Kneeling as proper, she rose and began her speech.
  “The Elves refuse to leave their forest realms for the sake of killing. They hold themselves aloof from ‘a part of humanity that will never cease until it has devoured itself.’ They were willing to see me to a place of safety, but I believed at the time that that would not be your wish.” Cocking her eyebrow in amusement, showing that she wasn’t all that formal, she continued. “The best I could get was for them to not attack your armies if they choose to move through the elven demesnes as long as you don’t hurt the forest. If the enemy does the same, they say they will not attack them either. I’m sorry, my liege, but even though I grew up amongst them, sometimes they can make me so furious!” Charles had a chance to say something wise or consoling, but he was too busy biting his lip to stop himself from staring dreamily at her like some passionate youth. Why did I not want her back? I’ve got to remember the problem with her. . . Seeing that the king wasn’t going to prolong the conversation, she turned to leave, but was interrupted by the entrance of a new woman.
  “Laura! So glad to see you’re back. Will you be coming with us, then? I’m sure a, well, a ninja like you could help us a lot.” The unspoken word assassin filled the air for a moment, but Hydrosphere broke the unease. Flitting about Gale’s head , occasionally threatening to splat into her but changing course just in time each time, the elemental pronounced its joy for seeing Gale through the siege safely. Gale laughed happily at Hydrosphere, trying to concentrate on Laura instead of the elemental still seeking her attention. The sheer relief of the ending of the siege made Gale giddy, ready to laugh at anything and everything just to show that she could.
  “Come with you, where are you going?” Laura asked suspiciously. Gale now looked towards her father, who vigorously shook his head no. Laura caught the glance and turned back towards the King, eyes slanting in cold anger.
  “What are you hiding, my liege?” An undertone of menace in her voice stopped Charles from answering something like none of your business. By the time her gaze reached his eyes, he was very convinced that it was. Such beauty could never be deceived, it would be an act of such cruelty as to make him want to break down and weep right now at the thought of such a thing. “I am sorry, Laura, but Gale has been destined to enter Spa, and you won’t be able to help her there.”
  “But Father, she’s my friend. Surely you can trust her. I’m going to be surrounded by all these people, all these men, without one single kindred soul among them. Please, for my sake, Father.” requested Gale. Hydrosphere bobbed indignantly at this, pretending to grow hot with anger as a human would by boiling away into steam. Gale nodded as if in agreement to someone else’s talking, “But you’re an elemental, you don’t count!” Laura looked questioningly at Gale, then shook it away and turned back.
  “My King, if it is my safety you are concerned about, then I thank you for your thoughts. But I can not allow Gale to go alone to a place where thousands have sought for and none have ever reached. Surely you’ll need all the help you can get.” The reasonable way she put it, the charm in her voice was so hard to argue with.
  “Laura, I’m afraid your presence would cause certain complications I hope to avoid.” The way he pointedly told this, looking straight at Gale, obviously there was an unwritten message inside. Gale shook her head, though, still not understanding.
  “Come on, Daddy. Laura won’t get in any of our ways, and she’s slept in the trees and fed off the wildlife for so long surely you can’t be saying she’s too delicate.” Gale almost spat out the last word with scorn. Laura widened her eyes further, making a puppy dog face. The sole ruler of the Kingdom of Water could do nothing but succumb after that.
  “Fine. Fine. Gale, get Laura ready and then take her over to the blue guest room to meet with the others. All will be in readiness for tomorrow, Neptune knows enough time has been lost already.” The two girls and a thick cloud made their way out of the room, and Charles leaned back wearily in his throne, regretting Laura had left his sight so soon and scorning himself for doing so. Great, just great. The Prince of Wind is going to be traveling with her for the rest of the journey. How can he fall in love with the Princess with HER constantly hanging in front of his eyes? It wouldn’t even be his fault, no one could resist Laura’s beauty. It was as if Gale didn’t think of her as competition! What if the man falls in love with Laura instead? Vernichtum, that’s what. The utter obliteration of the world, and all because he couldn’t stand up to a couple girls young enough to be his daughters.

  “Can you believe the temerity of that person, sending me off on a mission in the hopes of leaving me behind! He knows I would have never let you go alone, so he sends me off as just another errand boy on a hopeless gesture. How did I fall for taking that journey in the first place? I bet if he had his way, I’d come back a week later and he’d make me his ambassador for the rest of the war!” Laura, though fuming, still moved with the instinctive grace of a ninja, cat-like and smooth, ready to kill at any moment.
  “Well, if you think she needs it.” Gale answered.
  “What?” Laura asks, scrutinizing Gale as if maybe by close examination she could make sense of her. But then a soothing coolness spread all across her body, and even into her mind. Calming, peaceful, and Laura found to her astonishment to be without any anger at all.
  “Come on, Laura. He let you come, right? So what’s the problem?” Gale asked consolingly.
  “I guess you’re right.” Laura sighed. It was hard to remember any more what she should even be angry with. Gale laughed, nodding. Laura was getting to wonder if her friend had gone insane. Then Gale turned to her, as if she’d been talking with someone else before. “The blue room is over here, I guess everything will be explained by the rest of the people. From what I hear, an odd group awaits us.” And without further ado, Gale opened the door and stepped inside. There, four men sat over a map as if by sheer willpower they could make their route easier or just teleport to where they wanted to go. Fisher looked up first when the girls entered the room. He blinked, took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes, and put them back on again.
   “My good friends, beware, for Venus walks among us.” warned Fisher. The group sat back and looked at the new company. The reactions ranged from a choked gargle to a stony blank look as each man tried not to stare. An awkward silence descended on the room, as none of the men were ready to stop looking, and the girls were waiting for the boys to introduce themselves. Finally, Fisher rubbed the glasses that were clouding with moisture, and good-heartedly said, “Sure is getting humid in here.”
  Gale laughed light-heartedly at that. “You could say that, Fisher! Are you sure you’re up to this after last night?” Worry filled her eyes as she noticed the bloodstains still on what Fisher was determined to call clothes.
  “I may be old, niece, but I can keep up with you soft young ‘uns every day of the week. Why, when I was in Minnesota, I had to walk five miles through the snow with nothing more than a loincloth! You people would probably just make it move out of your way!” Fisher snorted, showing his distaste for that sort of action. In fact, Fisher seemed to be the only person capable of speaking amongst the entire group. Six eyes were locked on the ninja’s form, watering from the effort to never blink. Laura stood waiting for Gale to introduce her, pretending not to notice them. She’d gotten used to this sort of thing, and didn’t hold it against people or grow uncomfortable from being the center of attention. She remembered a time when she felt like such a klutz living among the elves. They were so kind, but all the time she had noticed how they tried to hide their smiles at her attempts of emulating the elven maidens' gait and posture. It was that which eventually forced her to rejoin her own people, and she realized that compared to the rest of humanity she was beautiful. It was a revelation, something that took away the sting of being separated from all the people she’d ever known. Something that promised her that she could indeed live in these new surroundings. “Oh! I’m sorry.” Gale apologized blushingly, noticing how everyone else was still frozen. “Everyone, this is Laura. My, err, handmaiden. She’ll be traveling with us.” Herkam made as if to argue, but choked it back after glancing at Laura again. Gust was finally able to respond to his promised one. “So you must be Gale, since you’re both speaking Reichspiel I assume you don’t mind being a translator. Our plans for bridging that gap were ruined a bit ago. Can Laura understand us?” Gale looked at Laura, and then answered. “I guess not. I didn’t think that would be a problem, I thought Wind magic could change the way the air passed through your throat. . .”
  Gust nodded sadly, “I’m afraid the spell is too complex for our current company. I hope you aren’t offended by having to speak our language. We don’t mean to suggest that we are superior or anything.” A nervous smile caught his face. Gale smiled warmly back.
  “Not at all. I’m just glad I could find time to learn your language, and here Fisher can speak it just as well as me. How did you come about to speak their language?”
  “Books, niece. In books lies all the knowledge of the Earth, all you have to do is look long enough.” The old man pointed to his traveling bags, bulging with squarish objects inside. “Even some things you never wanted to learn.” he muttered softly into his beard. Gust looked at Gale apologetically as he questioned her judgment, “Are you sure you want your uncle to come with us? It really will be hard travel, and he needn’t share the danger we’re getting ourselves into.”
  “I could ask the same about you and that young boy.” Gale answered challengingly, her defense up. Herkam snorted amused agreement in the background, avoiding Gust’s vengeful eye even though he was happy to have someone finally back his assertion.
  “This young boy has already saved our lives once, my princess. Try not to make presumptions when you know nothing of the situation.” Gust stated coldly. Vistan still lounged calmly on the couch, though anger raged inside for people speaking over his head as if he weren’t right there in the room with them. As if he didn’t merit his own voice, but had to depend on others’ words to be spoken for him. But he had learned a long time ago anger didn’t help anyone, it clouded the mind and tainted your spells. To cleanse himself, bright green eyes wandered back to gaze at the sheer vision of perfection again. He’d never imagined anything could be so beautiful. Nothing so grand could ever do wrong, he mouthed fervently. In the background, words washed over him that he did not notice, his entire self devoted to simply watching this one girl stand calmly even though she didn’t understand a word being said.
  “--you hypocrite! My uncle has done more than you probably ever will, there is not a wiser man in all the world.” Gale hotly argued.
  Gust wiped his brow, it really was humid in here. He started to form another verbal barb, but Herkam was having none of it.
  “Enough! You bicker like children. There will be plenty of that later. If you think your uncle is up to it, fine. And if you think this boy is up to it, fine. If you ask me, if there’s anyone here who we shouldn’t be sure about it’s you two! You’ll notice the old man and the little boy haven’t said a word, but you two are already ready to jump at each other’s throats. Bring this with you to Spa and then see what happens!” Herkam gripped his sword hilt as if to constrain himself, and the two members of royalty seemed not able to decide whether they should be embarrassed or angry at the mere armsmaster to address them so.
  “You’re right, Hydro. Here I am dosing out medicine that I need to be taking myself. No, don’t cast it. I can calm myself.” Now she spoke in her native language, but even those who understood it couldn’t make much sense of it. That is, not until the air coalesced into a dense cloud of heavy droplets, and then transformed into a ball of spinning water no bigger than a man’s clenched fist. Gale looked amusedly at everyone’s startled reactions, “Gentlemen, meet Hydrosphere, my elemental. Hydrosphere, meet my new--acquaintances.” The ball bobbed up and down, still spinning faster than the eye could follow, and yet retaining its spherical shape all the same. Compared to the shock of Laura, this other thing wasn’t much of a big deal. It began to be numbing. Next an android could trundle in and make the scene perfect. Gust graciously bowed to the thing and Gale, “You certainly go in strange company, princess. It almost shames me to be traveling with mere humans. Just make sure they’re all ready to leave tomorrow morning. We head for the Black Library, and there’s not much time left to spare.”
  The Prince huffed out, followed by Herkam like a shadow. The armsmaster was determined to never leave the man alone and vulnerable. Vistan, however, was still too intent on Laura to leave the room. Every living moment he had to absorb her image, for as long as possible he had to drink in this vision of divinity. Gale fumed, then turned to see the wind wizard draped all in fine green cloth still there. Beneath that cowl, twin beams of luminescence glowed in stark contrast to an otherwise shadowed face. It almost frightened Gale, but not to be outdone by Gust’s courtesy, Gale went to prove that she could be far more civil. “I’m sorry I talked about you like that. Are you angry?” She said soothingly, pleading for forgiveness in such a way that she’d learned that she always gained it afterwards.
  Vistan regrettably looked at the nuisance distracting him, “Huh? Why should I be angry?” As if asking to be filled in to a situation he’d only just arrived at.
  Gale shook her head, trying to hide a smile as she talked in her own language to the other girl. Laura laughed too, when she heard what that interchange was all about. Then the Princess turned back to the boy. “She’ll be traveling with us for most of the way, if you wondered.”
  Vistan blushed to be so apparent, but it wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t considered it possible for any human to posses such fairness. To change the subject, he looked towards the old man, poking at the elemental with his cane even as the thing deftly dodged aside. “Good sir, you say you’re the princess’s uncle. But then why aren’t you king?” Vistan asked innocently.
  Fisher frowned, still not diverting his attention from the task at hand, “I had too much work to do to be king. That’s what younger brothers are there for. To do all the easy stuff. I’d never have had time to read, or play. . .well, I guess I don’t need time for that anymore.” Fisher ended resignedly, chewing on the end of his beard. “But then, one could say time is merely a construct of man and his wish to bring order to an otherwise chaotic realm, and thus not having enough of it as a logical fallacy. For if man can invent it, then surely he can manipulate it to serve his needs.” The speech went into a lower muttering, as Fisher began to debate it with himself. Which was a good habit, considering no one else ever could. “Then why so many people always claiming the same thing? Surely there has to be a reason for time to confound everyone everywhere. If time were a type of measurement, then I suppose one could claim he didn’t have enough of it. Just as one can claim he doesn’t have enough length of wood to make a fence post. If it were such a thing, how come you can’t just go and get yourself more time, as you would if you needed more wood. . .”
  Gale looked apologetically at Vistan’s confusion. “Sometimes I think he’s a little too wise, if you catch my meaning. Don’t worry, though, he won’t get in our way. You wouldn’t deny a man’s last years the right to appease his wanderlust and quest for knowledge, would you? Information is like water to him, if he doesn’t get enough the poor man would drop dead on the spot. You wouldn’t just let him die?”
  Laura coughed, a polite reminder to the gaping apprentice that someone was talking to him. “Oh! Well, I, um, suppose not. I should go join Gust now.” Vistan clutched his robes so he could walk unobstructed, and raced out the doorway. Hydrosphere, answering a summoning strong enough to drop his present fun, rushed out after him. Gale wasn’t surprised. Most of the time when he acted like this she could find him with her father, she’d retrieve him in a bit. . .
  Laura asked mock-astonishedly, “What did you say to him?”
  Gale laughed and put a hand on the ninja’s shoulder, a gesture of fellowship. “Just about how you like to be kissed. . .” Laura’s eyes widened before she caught the mischievous light in Gale’s eyes.
  “This won’t do, I’m going to have to learn their language. Doesn’t your throat go dry from all that growling? Why can’t they have a simple, fluid language like ours?”
  “You know, before the winter they all did. All the civilized nations. But once the winter came they fell back to their roots and abandoned everything to return to an older way of life. They all went back to speaking their original language, and we’ve got to start all over again. At least now there are people who can craft translation spells.” The talk went on, and on, and on. The two friends catching up on the weeks lost between them, trying to end the distant relationship that had served to protect Laura’s identity before of servant and master.

  “And I’m supposed to marry this girl? I’ll probably have a heart attack first! Who ever heard of a pet elemental?” His voice seemed to carry an edge of the frantic. A loss of composure. “A ball of water, a bag of bones, and, and. . .” Well, Gust just opened his hands as if to say, ‘well, you saw her.’ “What kind of prissy fool brings a serving girl along on a mission like this? Who is arrogant enough to allow something so beautiful to perish just so she can be served that much longer?”
  Herkam frowned, as if mulling over things that didn’t quite fit together. “The way she stood, it reminds me of, well, me. Of the other Armsmasters and blademasters I have taught and sparred against. The eyes hold a sort of confidence, and the fluidity of motion. . .I advise you to not jump to conclusions about this girl, my Prince. Maybe for your own safety.” Gust seemed to consider that for a while, then magically he shed all of his angers and fears to become once more the Gust Herkam had grown to like and admire.
  “I confess I didn’t pay much attention to details about her. But if she is an assassin and not just some poor wretch getting dragged along, and Gale is completely innocent of snobbishness and royal arrogance, why then did she feel the need to lie to me?” There was an imploring look of hurt on the young face, asking Herkam at least to reassure him that he was worth trusting.
  “My lord, your guesses are as good as mine. The reasons I can immediately think of don’t justify her actions, but maybe if you asked her she could give you some better ones.” Herkam went back to sharpening his sword, the slide of rock on steel making a sort of music of its own, something the Valley had never learned to appreciate. Gust looked apologetically at his own sword, for he treated his much less tenderly and devotedly than the Armsmaster treated his. “I remember once wanting to become a battle wizard with Lars. I remember when we first met, and I knew more than he but at the same time knew from the spark in his eyes that he’d reach far, far beyond anything I could dream of becoming. My family is strong in magic, I could’ve trained under Perigon at his side, become an accomplished swordsman and magician. . .But I never had the time. I had too many things to learn about how to run a country, how to rule a kingdom. I’ve learned all I ever want to learn about that, Herkam. For once, I am free. Freer than I’ve been since birth, and even though I know I march to my death, I am happier now than I’ve ever been before. And do you know what I want to learn now, Herkam? Everything. I want to be a druid, a bard, a blademaster, a mage. . .I want to be able to go over to that boy the room across from us and say, ‘I can help you. I can heal you from all the damage you’ve taken for me, and lead you to the path you were destined to take since the beginning of creation.’ All these people around me, depending on me, and I’m not good at anything! Just a dabbling in everything, with no understanding of anything except diplomacy. As if that matters anymore.” Herkam had been nodding when appropriate, making no sound save the steady ringing scrape across his blade. And now, seeing his speech done, so to did he stop his own work. Kneeling, right knee to the earth and head to left as proper, he spoke, “My services are at your disposal, my liege.”
  And Gust, knowing that Herkam was speaking truly and with pure formality, the way the man had learned to speak even at the most casual moments, answered in the same tone. “Teach me how to dance and sing, blademaster of the Lehrer division.” asked Gust with enough fervor in his voice to show that he was willing to undergo whatever hardships he had to learn.

  “That’s all well and good, but I’m no one’s pet. I’ll go where I please, do what I want, not look out for some little girl so she can live happily ever after.” Siplar’s voice held intense contempt for the concept of such a thing. Her stance was confident and strong, ready to tear the castle down on itself if she so chose. Herkam might have been able to stare her down, the King certainly couldn’t. Bullied around by his daughter, and now by this insolent little girl. What was becoming of him?
  “I realize you’re not my subject, but I don’t have to let you stay in my Kingdom.” Charles threatened. Siplar laughed. Laughed!
  “I wouldn’t want to leave just yet, king, now would I? I’ve so much work yet to do. I hear your broken armies are rallying at San Antonio, maybe I should like to join that conflict. Iyrtu doesn’t like magical beasts, Neptunian nor Venetian.”
  “You are a stupid, silly girl.” Charles spat. “You and your precious dragon won’t make a tiny difference in the war. The only way you can help is to--”
  “I don’t want to help!” Siplar screamed. “I won’t be put down in some book as ‘the girl who helped the glorious, wonderful Princess reach Spa and save the entire Kingdom.’ I have grander things I was destined for! I serve no one!” The Dragon Knight took a deep breath, calmed herself step by step. Then she turned eyes cold as ice on the king once more. “No one, out of thousands of treasure hunters and what not, has reached the eternal city. Everyone in that party is going to die. Most of them have almost died already. I will not participate in such a futile gesture, and be remembered as just one more arrogant fool among thousands. I will leave a mark on this world. While your adventurers wander around till they slip and fall on their own swords, I’ll save the world the only way it’s ever saved, not with magic and gods, but steel. I’ll win this war, not Prismi, but I and I alone, not in the land of dreams and miracles, but on this very earth, with a lance I can heft and feel.” Her voice was taut at the end, full of the fire that drove her on day by day. The need for glory, recognition, that most people felt but only she was consumed by. She would stop at nothing for it, her eyes glittered with challenge for any who got in her way. She had never met her match in battle, she dared someone to oppose her, wished such a person so she could destroy him and prove that she was better. Challenging, daring, wishing for the King in front of her to be such a person. But Charles did not take her bait, and Siplar buried away her disappointment. Disappointment was a sign of weakness. Always expect the worst, and one would not be disappointed. So instead of killing the great man before her the Dragon Knight went out the door, out the castle, mounted Iyrtu, and then out of the capital, and into the sky, a black speck against the cloudy blue sky, and then not even that.
  Hydrosphere spun, silent and motionless, letting the mood settle in. “You know what the scariest thing is of all?” Charles mused aloud. “I believe her--about serving no one. I always thought everyone served someone or something. If not a noble, then a cause, or a god, or a group of people who shared your beliefs. But not her. Waterball, I think she is no longer human, if you know what I mean. A body of one, but no longer a mind, no longer a soul.” The King shivered. Maybe it was all right to be bullied sometimes after all. “I guess I should be glad to be in the position of the underdog. At least this way she views it as greater honour to bring our side to victory than the other. But, Hydrosphere, by Neptune I don’t want her on my side. A beautiful woman with the powers of a Dragon Knight, and without the loyalty, mercy, and all the vows and binds that lend a Dragon Knight honour and chivalry. . .How can such a thing be accounted for in the gods’ plans? And if the gods’ plans go awry, who can we turn to then?” The elemental made no gesture of agreement or disagreement. Just floated silently and spun. Neptune knows what an animated globe of water thought, joked Charles inwardly. Well, I suppose Neptune would know, because this blob is Neptune, come to think of it. Which frankly scared him, too. Here I am, by lucky fate the ruler of all those whom Neptune took under his great wing. And here is Neptune right beside me, living around me and watching my works and efforts by the day. Am I worthy? Have I done things well enough, or am I ruining all that he has saved? And here he couldn’t even tell if that amorphous blob was judging him, much less how. Talking to my patron as if I needed to tell him how I understood Siplar, as if he needed my guidance. How pathetically stupid Neptune must think he was. It was during times like these that Fisher’s teachings rose up to haunt him. When his older brother had tried vainly to make him a philosopher, to get him to abandon all the trappings of royalty and seek a hermit’s life out in the great wild alongside him. That old loon who spoke English only half the time and gibberish the rest, this person’s words now consoled him. “Always rationalize in the face of despair.” repeated the King out loud. I do the best I can. I do what I feel I must. And if Neptune doesn’t like it, then let his avatar floating right here beside me strike me down and find someone else. And if it doesn’t, then I guess I’m doing something right so I might as well not belittle myself. Great, now I really am getting to sound like my brother. . .

4. The Journey Begins. . .Again.
Horses. Vistan looked despairingly at the long line of them. One of them he had to choose to ride under for the rest of the trip. He didn’t care that it didn’t seem to bother anyone else, riding a horse hurt. It wore away in awkward places and put you in an unnatural position, and it plain wasn’t comfortable. But it really wasn’t his choice whether he rode one or not. They had a long way to go across a great stretch of wilderness and without much time. “Horses!” he grumbled indignantly. “What do I know of horses? I lived in Bann all my life, and I was going to teleport once I needed to go somewhere. It isn’t proper for a wizard to go around riding a horse. I had to go through all my clothes and tear them just so I could sit on one of the mangy beasts!”
  Gust, already mounted, artfully maneuvered the large red horse to Vistan’s side. It probably had some other name, like dun or gelding or stallion, but Vistan had no idea how to determine that so ‘horse’ was about as specific as he was going to get. “I think that chestnut would suit you well, Vistan.” A hint of weariness was in Gust’s voice.
  “Thank you, lord. Are you all right?” Vistan went to untie the horse from the picket line. He was glad there was a stablehand nearby, he had no wish to go underneath that thing and try to strap a saddle on without getting his head squished like a ripe melon.
  “Just a long night. The air will work wonders once we get out of all this city.
  Vistan worked his way on top of his horse, which happily wasn’t very tall or very mean. “I know what you mean, sir. No Rhine River to picnic by.”
  “A beautiful city, Vistan. A beautiful land. I can’t forget that. I have to care for it, or. . .” Gust, troubled, rode off without any further words. Vistan decided not to follow. The last thing that person needed was a substitute for his real friend. Gust hid it well enough, but Vistan could see the loneliness. Lars. Without him, it’s all falling apart. Gust losing his friendly disposition, modeling after Herkam for absence of anyone better.... It hit Vistan just then that Gust was still growing up, too. Still looking up to other, older people, still trying to change into something better. Yes, but is he a bastard? Really, comparing yourself to a prince is a good joke. We’re about as different as any two people could be. An orphan, rejected and shunned by the land he came to be in, and the future ruler of the kingdom, loved and revered by the very same people. Green eyes formed in the darkness of his mind, mocking, jeering. You shouldn’t have come. It is your fault. It is all your fault. You and your damn prophecies. If you hadn’t come, then you could’ve saved the world. Lars told you that, told you that you had a duty! Now what are you? Because of your stupid, childish behavior everything’s screwed. I was supposed to stand up against Earth, give these people the time. But I’m here, not there, and so now I can’t help them worth a damn, now can I?
  Stop daydreaming, kid. I thought you vaunted wizards didn’t have to sleep.” A sneer on Herkam’s face very artfully said, ‘well, so much for that theory.’ “Sleep in your saddle, if you have to, but we’re riding!” The big, white horse made a jump of excited anticipation. Herkam rode as if glued to the saddle, not in the least bothered. Gust and Gale rode side by side ahead, west. Then the next pair of riders, Laura and Fisher. The elemental probably water vapor somewhere in the sky, watching over them. Herkam did not wait to see if he was obeyed, just began to ride. ‘Horses,’ Vistan moaned, as if that one word conveyed all the troubles of the world upon its back.

  “The north is such a beautiful place. Nature raw and untamed. Wolves stalking caribou across the boundless snow. . .” Gust tried to express just how wonderful the wild was with words and fell short. Gale thought nature was pretty and all, but to devote one’s self to it was a waste of time. Nature did far too well without human aid. It was the enemy of progress and growth, it fought for every square inch of farmland people needed to survive. Raw nature was cruel, not wondrous. But to avoid conflict, she kept silent.
  “You can shield us from the cold, right? I mean, I guess I could keep the wind away, but for all the snow and ice. . .”
  “Temperature is fire’s department, my Prince. Water is more concerned with life.” Seeing Gust’s annoyed expression, Gale smiled at him and said, “Oh, of course I can deal with all that stuff. Hydrosphere here has enough magic packed inside himself to make the climate whatever you want.” After that, a long stretch of the plod of hooves and sounds of motion. Day birds still sang their melodies, creating a cacophony of different sounds that somehow remained harmonious. The countryside stretched as far as the eye could see, mostly farmland or the occasional orchard. Gust found it dull.  “I could wish for some monster to appear, if only to relieve the boredom. It’ll be months like this!” complained Gust.
  Gale nodded, not really paying attention. She wasn’t bored in the least, with Hydrosphere teaching her how to change the climate with water. It was hard, weather seemed to be fire, wind, and water together. But if you treated it right, you could make the same effect with water alone.
  “As long as we’re on cultivated ground, at least the magic will be weak, and nothing will--”
I don’t see why you don’t just do it yourself!” She challenged Hydrosphere, not noticing that anything was going on around her.
  “Oh, sorry. I was talking to Waterball. Don’t mind me.” Gale flashed a smile before she went back to her studies. Gust shook his head. He could see how this thing was going to make conversation very confusing. What if the thing couldn’t talk at all, and she was just insane? That would be funny. The entire trip they’re talking to some stupid ball of water and really the Princess was just a schizophrenic. He must really be tired. He couldn’t remember getting any sleep, just practice after practice. They hadn’t even sparred, Herkam had just made him drill and drill techniques he thought he’d mastered long ago. But what he learned is that mastery wasn’t good enough. To satisfy the armsmaster, you had to have it reflexive, automatic, and damn fast. Sleeping in the saddle didn’t sound half bad any longer. He supposed they’d have to tie him to his horse, and that might be problematic if there was any need for action. . .
  “Hey, Gust! Snap out of it. Hydro here says he can put you to sleep if you want, but really I think you should just deal with it. Didn’t you tell me to have plenty of sleep? Serves you right if you don’t have the sense to follow your own advice.” Gust didn’t bother to reply, just sort of sat there, half-heartedly fighting his eyes as they tried to sink shut. The horse skillfully shifted itself to keep his rider mounted, laying his ears back in irritation towards the prince. Then, as if it was a spell of dizziness, Gust sat upright and made no further admissions to his sleepiness. After all, he was a wizard, right? He shouldn’t be tired in the least. He could sense another long silence settling in, and so he moved to disrupt it. Unlimbering his harp case, he scanned his mind for something appropriate. He tried to imagine the Valley of Music, the lakes and rivers that sparkled like a thousand jewels scattered across bright green cloth. How his first sight of the land had taken his breath away, standing high atop Blatiere. A song came to mind, and his fingers played it with gentleness and ease. Eventually, the song faded away, leaving one soft note in remembrance of its former glory.
  “That was beautiful.” Gale remarked, admiration shining in her eyes. “Are you a bard?”
  “No. Merely an amateur. I took a liking to music, that’s all.” Gust explained modestly. He knew a little in the ways of the deepsong, but to call himself a bard would have been an insult.
  “Well, I think you should be. I’ve listened to a lot of court musicians from all over the country, and you surpass them all.”
  “To be frank, Gale, your land has little reputation for the arts.”
  “What is art, exactly?” Fisher suddenly interjected. “If I put a dot of paint on canvas, is it a work of art? Or is their some standard I have to measure up to before it becomes real art? And if so, whose standard do we go by?”
  “Art is anything produced by creativity and imagination, such as songs, dances, paintings, or poetry. Putting a dot of paint on canvas is hardly creative, so no, it isn’t art. The standard is if it attracts interest or is aesthetic, and we each go by our own standard. Is that good enough?”
  Fisher, flustered at the impertinent answers, sulked as he figured out a brilliant reply that would throw all of Gust’s logic in shambles. Laura uncomfortably watched the conversation flow by, not understanding a bit of what was going on. She quietly sighed, letting herself turn her attention to the land around her. Sharp eyes caught the glint of water where there shouldn’t have been any. It was far too blue for water, as well. Silently drawing a pair of throwing knives, she smiled at the diversion. The furtive blue scorpion scuttled closer, eyeing the large horses before it, searching for an easy kill. The Neptunian launched itself from the tall wheat field growing across from the road. Laura took aim for the eye, but Hydrosphere was even faster. Concentrating its will, the elemental formed in its mind a hailstorm to beset the creature, and so, belying all underlying laws of weather and climate, the storm appeared. The great balls of ice struck with devastating accuracy, smashing the heavily armoured creature into oblivion. In moments, the deep blue eyes glazed over and the battle was over as quickly as it began.
  Herkam, sword in hand, stated, “As I said. Be glad the things are weak.” The sliding ring of a sheathed blade tried to end the conversation, but Gust wasn’t going to let it pass so easily.
  “Your brother has something a lot like this. Do you people get elementals as birthrights or something?” Gust asked incredulously.
  “Hydrosphere is Hydrosphere, and I have no idea how he came to be or why he likes me, but you can trust him.” Gale explained.
  “Can you cast spells like that?” Gust asked, still looking at the spot of devastated land.
  “Yes. It’s just ice, after all.”
  “Oh.” Gust started to ride again, and the rest of the companions followed suit. Gust’s mind was in turmoil. He felt like excess baggage, he and his men. Like they couldn’t handle anything on their own, and needed the protection of a girl. If he was weaker than Gale, then how could he be a husband? It was his job to fight the enemy and save the day, not hers! How could he ever prove himself to her if that stupid little Neptunian handled everything? Malignant thoughts about what he would do to the stupid ball if he ever got his hands on to him filled Gust’s mind. Do elementals sleep? He supposed not. Hydrosphere sustained himself on Neptune’s magic, he wouldn’t need food or rest to go on. Just one more thing that made him inferior. Here he was, losing to something no larger than his head, something not even human!
  “What are you thinking?” Gale asked, riding alongside him. As if he could tell her he was jealous and angry with a ball of water!
  “Nothing.” Gust answered evasively.
  “You’ve been glaring ever since the scorpion, are you mad about all the vegetation dying? Surely you don’t want to preserve the wilderness so much so that you aren’t willing to fight in it?” Gale asked, a little afraid that that might be the case.
  “No. I said it was nothing.”
  “Look, we’re going to marry, right? If you let things get between us and don’t talk about it, then how will you love me?”
  “I don’t think we need to worry about that until we get the keys. Right now let’s just stay alive together, okay?” Gust beseeched. Practically, he knew they needed Hydrosphere, so whining about it wouldn’t help any. Why couldn’t she just leave him alone?
  “Fine, have it your way.” Gale surrendered to male bullheadedness and went back to ride with her friend.
  “It feels good to speak English again!” Gale remarked, stretching in the newborn sun. “How’s it going?”
  “I sort of get the idea it’s going to be like that a long time. After all, we have almost eight months before the conjunction. We can’t be slaying beasts and raiding treasure hordes every day.”
  “Yes, quite an adventure.” Laura said sarcastically. “We’re going to Spa! I mean, just how many glory hounds and treasure hunters have done this very same thing? We’re probably on the most difficult, most important quest in the century, and here we are plodding around on horses.”
  “What do you want me to do about it? Clouds can’t carry people, I don’t care what Konstidor and Kassiik says.”
  “Doesn’t wind magic involve movement and speed and all?”
  “These aren’t exactly the best wind mages, if you know what I mean.”
  “Technology could’ve gotten us there, and in luxury, too.” Laura pouted. Gale sighed, not exactly happy with the situation either. But if you thought about it another way, eight months seemed awfully short for true love to blossom, and every day counted. How can you Make yourself fall in love? That could wait, she guessed. Right now she had to console her friend.
  “Think of it this way: You’re gonna be the one who gets us the key right from under their noses. None of us could sneak in there and out without a sound. You’ll have plenty of excitement then.”
  ‘Thanks.” Sarcastically again. “I wish I knew their language, then I could be accepted by everyone instead of here only because of you. Fisher has all the luck. He knows the language and he isn’t bored.”
  “Instead, he’s probably just in severe pain. The poor guy doesn’t have any cushioning.” Gale really was concerned for her uncle. Laura laughed. Three men turned slightly in their saddles to catch her smile. “You’re right. I shouldn’t complain when we’ve such a stalwart example right in front of us.”
  “What’s that?” Gale asked.
  “I said, ‘I shouldn’t complain when we’ve such a stalwart example right in front of us.”
  “No. Not you. Hydrosphere was talking to me.” Gale apologized. “But what does that have to do with the weather?”. . . “That’s not Water magic!” . . . “Fine, tell me the words then, and I’ll prove it.” Laura stopped trying to follow the conversation and went back to brooding. Hydrosphere had a talent for screwing with her mind, always getting Gale to talk to it right in the middle of talking to her. How could one tell who she was addressing? The stupid thing just floated there. It has to be telepathic, Laura reasoned. What on Earth made the element of water encompass the mind? She’d have to ask Gale later.
  A bellow of metallic thunder was all the warning the party received before the downpour began. In moments, the bright sunny day became overcast with black, saturated clouds. The sun fled the seen, and the wind increased, sending waves of rain against the unprepared and abruptly drenched heroes. Hydrosphere began to frolic, and Gale shouted over the storm, “By Neptune, Hydrosphere, I can’t believe it worked!” Laura shivered as the rain seeped through her thin shirt, she could tell this adventure was going to be very interesting after all. . .
Chapter 5. The Enemy Stalks
Next time you might want to warn us before you play sorceress.” Gust complained. They had had to return to civilization, risking detection and assassination, to get some unsodden food and equipment. It wasn’t helping their funds, either.
  “Look, I told you it was an accident. I thought weather control was wind’s field, I was proving Hydrosphere wrong.” The clerk pretended not to notice the argument as he gathered things specified on Laura’s list of necessary resupplies. The village of Akron was very unquestioning as to what went on within. An underempire of crime controlled the officials, and might made right as far as those people believed. The impressive get-up of the party had so far dissuaded any normal attacks, but Herkam had advised against going because of the likelihood of Venusian infiltrators.
  “It was rain, Gale! Rain!” Gust countered exasperatingly.
  “Can we just get off this?” Gale said disgustedly. “So we got a little wet, who cares?”
  “Well, for one thing, your Uncle. He’s probably going to be sneezing the rest of the trip. You’d think the Wasser Reich had some inkling of family devotion.”
  “Are you trying to get me to hate you or are you just stupid!” Gale shouted. Herkam couldn’t take it any longer. “My lord, you must think to the benefit of your fatherland and avoid petty quarrels. If Gale must be confronted, let someone else do it. You are the one she must love.” Herkam spoke in a quick whisper, confident Gale couldn’t follow true Reichspiel. Who knows, maybe she couldn’t.
  “True love, Herkam. Scheming and pretending won’t get us anywhere. Besides, why does everyone have to remind me? We don’t even have the first key! Leave it alone and let us get our job done.”
  “As you say, my lord.” Herkam pulled his bow off so well Gust couldn’t even be sure if he’d been insulted or not. So he just shook his head and turned back to the counter, seeing that the new supplies had been gathered and fetching his money pouch disgruntledly. Bad enough she had to be a high-level spell caster, but she had to be childish about magic too. It had to be the elemental’s fault, to teach her to not fear and respect the limits, but to just rush headlong into new spells.

  Vistan lounged against the hitching rack, protecting what little they had left from the thieving masses that constituted the majority of the populace in this forsaken city. Underneath the cowl of his robe, two glaring green eyes dissuaded any loiterers or solicitors. He wondered what they would think if they knew he was only sixteen. It should have been funny, but it wasn’t, because he knew what would happen next. His arm twinged in the membrance of pain. He could hear the argument even from out here, it was so stupid. Did he and Herkam ever get into these things? If you’ve got problems with someone, live with them. Especially when the fate of the world depends upon it. Pondering gloomy thoughts, Vistan hardly noticed the childish, bent figure surprisingly intrigued by Vistan’s mark. He suddenly became embarrassed, and wished the boy would leave or he could just close his eyes and pretend for a bit they didn’t shine. To Vistan’s relief, he did leave, and a moment later the party, brimming with stifled glares, came out to regroup. Vistan regrettably stood from his repose, feeling the ache of a back which had supported too much weight. “Where’s Fisher?” Gale asked concernedly.
  “Laura left with him to go find a healer or something to help with his cold.” And now Gale did show embarrassment, since it was to a boy who did not challenge her authority or probe her weaknesses instead of the nobleman beside her, in the form of a blush on her face and a break of eye contact with the young boy. Now that Laura wasn’t right there next to her, Vistan noticed that Gale was pretty enough, too. He drove the thought forcefully from his mind. “Yeah, well, I guess we can find them easily enough from the crowd.” Gale smiled a bit at the foolishness of men. They began to mount up. Herkam expertly scaled his stallion in a fluid step and swing, then turned to the boy, still trying to get into his stirrup. “Anything that happened while we were gone?”
  “No.” Vistan said vexedly, concentrating entirely upon getting on top of the loathsome eating machine looming far overhead. Horses.

  Gale was right, they could tell. In the wake of Laura’s passage, there was an eerie silence, as each and every person recollected thoughts and tried to preserve the moment--without exception. At least Herkam had learned to not let it distract him, but these people only exposed to her for the first time were caught up completely. And so they rode, through motionless and quiet streets brimming with hardened criminals and corrupt ‘guards’, until they came upon the sign of a herbalist, and Gale went to get her companions back. She entered the room with the pungent odor of exotic plants and the thick scent of incense. A bunch of nonsense, if you asked her. But if Laura had thought it worthwhile. . .
  “Gale! Nice of you to join us. Do you happen to have any money?” Laura asked nervously, looking apologetically at both the herbalist and the princess at the same time. Gale didn’t know that was possible. But she guessed that the impossible was Laura’s field of expertise. “Uhh, sure.” Gale fished around for something suitable, and tossed it to Laura, who of course snatched it out of the air easily.
  “You see? Trust has to start somewhere, you know.” Laura admonished. The plump woman seemed to be getting angry, but Laura radiated a sense of calm just by sitting there, and eventually the woman pocketed the offered coin with a hmmph.
  “All right, Fisher, we can go now.” Laura said with relief. She wanted to be on the road again, away from all the brigands who had seemed to undress her with sheer effort of the mind, and were not far from trying it with the body, either.
  “Quiet, girl. These books have the most interesting facts.” Fisher called back from the other room.
  “Oh no.” Gale moaned. In the castle, it had taken five guards, three with some bad bruises from that famous knobby cane, to drag him away from the library on the second day Fisher had went without sleep. A whole new cache of books! How could she ever get him out of this one?
  “Come on, Fisher. We’re all ready.” Laura didn’t understand the magnitude of the calamity at hand, and expected reason to still prevail. Gale, on the other hand, was already sighing and digging into her money pouch for the money necessary to purchase however many books Fisher demanded. Maybe Herkam’s horse could carry them. Poor Fisher’s was already stuck with tons of them and Gale doubted it could carry any more.
  “How much for the books?” Gale sighed.
  “Are you kidding? That’s my life’s business! Without them, I’d go bankrupt. They’re not for sale.” Gale looked at the determined face, and sighed again, this time inwardly. I’ll leave a fair amount of money, Hydrosphere. Abruptly, the woman yawned, and turned in right there in her chair. “All right, Fisher! Just take whatever books you want and let’s go.” Laura looked surprised, and then suspiciously at Gale. Gale held up her hands in innocence. “You don’t know my uncle. Besides, I’ll leave more than enough to pay for damages.” And so the four members from the Kingdom of Water left the store to return to the three from the Kingdom of Wind, and no one found it amiss that such a division existed. No one noticed that when Gust rode at the front, Gale did not.
  “What was with you and the healer?” Gale asked, bored of watching the plains roll by endlessly. Laura took a moment to ascertain Gale was speaking to her, then made a gesture indicating ‘nothing, really.’ “I just didn’t have any money at hand, and so she thought I was going to cheat her. Those people must have a genetic trait for looking slant-eyed at people.” Laura said annoyedly.
  “I wonder if Wind has the same problems as us.” Gale thought aloud.
  “Why don’t you ask him?” Laura wheedled, seeing a chance to get them together again. At the same time, she was binding up her hair to keep it from getting snagged on anything. It was far too long to be practical.
  “It doesn’t matter.” Gale dismissed the thought.
  “Oh. Well, while we were waiting I learned some stuff about the war.”
  “Really! How is it? Has my brother fought yet? Did we hold at the Trinity?” The hope in her voice faded as she saw Laura’s pained face.
  “Consider Texas lost. Our armies are reforming at the Red and Sabine, supposedly. Who’s guarding the west, though? Do the fools think the desert can stop Fire magi? We’re being routed all across the field, by the minions of Venus of all things, not even humans!”
  “How bad were the losses?” Gale tried to not sound afraid.
  “I don’t know. It didn’t sound good. Goblins, Imps, Trolls and such never learned the benefits of conquering and mercy. Thousands flee to the north by the day, with nothing but a baby in their arms and a sack on their backs.”
  “That’s what they’re trying to do, isn’t it?” Gale’s voice quavered. “They aren’t here to conquer. They want to kill us. Kill us all. They want genocide. The death of Neptune himself. How could they be so cruel?” Laura looked at the girl riding beside her, and marveled that in fact they shared the same age. She’d lived through so much less than this girl ready to cry for her subjects’ losses. She wanted to comfort Gale, but she also wanted Gust to. If Gale came to rely on Laura to confide in, then it might well be that she would have caused the annihilation of the world.
  “You’re a princess, for Neptune’s sake, pull yourself together.” Laura said coldly instead, asking Neptune for forgiveness..
  “Is there something wrong?” Vistan concernedly asked, riding behind them. Laura, annoyed to find the wrong man and at the fact she couldn’t understand a single word he said, glared daggers at him. But Gale turned with a slight smile at the same time, so Laura didn’t end up with the reaction she wished for. “I’m sorry. It’s just my brother’s out there, and my people are dying and there’s nothing I can do.”
  “The Wasser Reich is large and numerous, I’m sure the tide will turn once the surprise wears off.”
  “You call the loss of Texas a quirk of surprise? No, we’re doomed. This stupid mission is hopeless. The war will be over by the time of the damn alignment.” Laura sighed and faded back away, sick of the harsh, guttural language of these men. Leaving the two alone.
  “You don’t really mean that. You can’t tell me Lars sacrificed himself for you to give up at the first sign of trouble. You won’t.” Vistan caught her eyes with his own, and held them until he saw her give in.
  “You’re his apprentice, right?” Gale tried to divert the conversation from such a serious level.
  “Was.” Vistan croaked. “He was the only family I ever had.”
  “He isn’t dead, you know.” Gale reminded the boy.
  “Isn’t he?” Vistan asked, his throat clutched by anguish. “How long has it been? And even if he revives, what will he be? What will he remember? We’ve already abandoned him for dead, we might as well admit it.”
  “I’m sorry.” Gale offered, knowing it wasn’t enough, not nearly enough. This boy scared her, in a way, she could sense power in him. More power than she’d ever thought possible. More power than even Hydrosphere. Where did he come from? Why was he here, so young and already bidden to die with the rest of us? What was this tormented soul’s story? “I’m sorry.” Gale said again, finding his hand and holding it for a moment.
        *    *    *

We have them!” Lastair hissed triumphantly. “Spotted in Akron, in Ohio.” Bernardo didn’t bother to ask how Lastair had found out about it so soon, the assassin had his ways.
  “They’re being trailed. I can catch them! They’re our last threat, our armies rampage uninhibited. Let me finish it.” Lastair asked, confident to be answered positively.
  “Do you hold a personal grudge against these people, or are you like this towards all your enemies?” Bernardo asked curiously, maybe the only person in the kingdom not afraid to anger the figure shrouded in black.
  “Sire, I ask a favour of you: Let me go. You shall be glad of it in the future. I promise I will not fail you like the rest of your fools.”
  “Lastair, you aren’t needed there. I need you here. If you tell me the location, I shall carry out the attack, and you can watch it if you wish. But this heroic nonsense must stop.” Lastair struggled with himself to find logic in his argument.
  “I’m the best you’ve got. The death of the princess is the end to the enemy’s hope. The Kingdom might very well surrender upon hearing the news. This is the most important thing there is. How can you trust others to carry this out?”
  “They are only a few, Lastair, all we need is a few flocks of falcons and they are dead. They are weak and easy prey. We must concern ourselves with the greater war.”
  “My lord, I demand the right.” Lastair bravely stated. Bernardo was upon his feet instantly. “How dare you! By Venus I shan’t stand for such insolence in my court! I am King, and you will do what I say!”
  Lastair bowed, fury etched on the face underneath his veil. “I apologize my lord, I shall leave.” He would leave. Leave the castle. Leave the county. Leave the Kingdom. And he would return with the head of their greatest nemesis, and his lord would realize the error of his ways and thank him for serving what he wanted instead of what he said, for being loyaler than any others by not being loyal. He would leave, and the one man he had ever admired would thank him for it. Prepare yourself, vile princess, for I am your enemy, and finally I come for you.
  “Where’s Hydrosphere?” Laura asked, tensely.
  “Somewhere in the air as water vapor, I suppose. Why?”
  “I feel like we’re being watched, I figured it was just him. But now I’m not so sure.” Laura’s voice was indeed anxious, it scared Gale. She’d never seen Laura out of composure like this.
  “Should we tell the others?” Gale asked, trying to recall a suitable spell for scouting. How on Earth could water see things?
  “No, it’s probably just me.”
  “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that before?” Gale slammed her fist into her open hand, her eyes bright.
  “Jeeze, it wasn’t that revolutionary a thought, Gale.” Laura commented, wondering if Gale was being sarcastic.
  “No, no.” Gale answered distractedly, “Hydrosphere was teaching me--”
  “Hydrosphere! It’s always Hydrosphere! Would you make that elemental shut up for once and let us have a conversation together?”
  “You’ll get used to it. Don’t get mad, he’s just my friend, too.”
  “If we could hear him maybe we wouldn’t look so stupid all the time thinking you’re talking to us!”
  “Only water magi can hear Neptune’s voice, I’m sorry. But now let me concentrate and we’ll see if there’s anybody nearby.” I don’t see why you don’t just cast the thing, if you know it---That’s no excuse!--Oh come on, Attu did it easily enough--Oh just forget it, shut up and let me cast the spell--Yes, I’m giving in, now leave me alone!
  “Spiritodi Neptune, Iochiamare lei.” In a burst of light appeared an ethereal, insubstantial spirit, living off only the force of Neptune’s radiance, using its power to defy reality and ready to serve the mage in whatever way possible. “I want you to scout the surrounding area a mile or so outwards for any form of intelligent life and report immediately if you find anything. Do you understand?” Spirits were very simple creatures, and could only perform actions well specified and given by the one who made it come to be. It was necessary to double-check everything with them. The spirit gave back her order word for word, then flitted away as fast as Hydrosphere. Gale supposed there was a reason for that. “That ought to do it.” Gale said proudly to Laura.
  “What was that?” Gust asked, his eyes on the part of the forest where he’d last seen the apparition. “A messenger?”
  “No, I sent it out to see if we weren’t being tracked. It’ll be back in a bit.”
  “O.K.” Gust said doubtfully. “What was it you said? ‘Spiritodi Neptune’?”
  “It’s the language of magic. Even you should know that.”
  “But it’s the same. I mean, that is ‘spirit of Neptune’, isn’t it? If Wind and Water uses the same language of magic, shouldn’t we already be one element?”
  “The language of magic is universal, it works for whatever patron we invoke. But you’re right, it hints that there’s something more general about magic. As if it all stemmed from a common source. And in that case, Prismi is--” A high-pitched, unending, unwavering scream swallowed Gale’s words, so loud it seemed the land itself was screaming in pain. Horses panicked, fighting their riders to run away from the awful sound, the whites of their eyes enlarging. Terrified whinnies couldn’t even be heard amidst that awful scream that never even paused for breath. Vistan’s chestnut promptly threw the apprentice off, and the apprentice hit the ground hard, the air knocked out of him. The horse began to flee at a gallop, but suddenly it calmed down, losing interest in the noise, and began to graze. The pacification spell expertly crafted by the invisible Aquasphere spread to all the horses, to the beleaguered heroes’ relief. And as soon as it had begun, the wail ended, and the world was utterly silent. The singing birds and scramble of wildlife did not return for a long time.
  “Your spirit, I presume?” Gust asked after a long pause.
  “Ummm.” Gale said diplomatically, hesitantly lowering hands from ears to see if it was really safe. Behind them, Fisher raised eyes from his book to see Vistan doubled up on the ground, coughing and gasping for air. “What happened? Was there an attack? Arrghh! My first chance to play chess in a week and I missed the whole thing!”
  “Fisher, no one attacked us. Didn’t you hear that death-cry?”
  “Well,” Fisher pouted, “It was a really interesting point Lloyd was making.”
  “You are crazy!” Gust marveled. In the meantime, Herkam had fetched Vistan’s horse and brought him to the humiliated son of Uranus. “Where did you learn how to ride, boy, Shetland?” Herkam looked incredulous in the face of such stupidity.
  Vistan glared daggers at the older man, eyes narrowed into slits of brilliant green. “What is your vendetta with me? So I can’t ride, let’s see you try to save the world.” Vistan was ashamed of himself immediately, he had never used the prophecy before to gain respect. Just because he was fated to be great didn’t make him great now, and it was arrogant and childish to use one’s title for personal gain. But he’d be damned if he was going to show that to Herkam. He could just see the eyes spilling over with I told you so.
  “Enough of that.” Gust interjected. “There’s obviously something out there that wants our heads and probably can take them if we don’t get moving now.” The tone of command, so natural to their ears, laced with the magic of his voice, compelled them to obey without challenge, and so Vistan mounted his horse in deference to his lord, and awaited Gust’s next command.
  “Gale?” Gust queried accommodatingly to the person who was, after all, an equal in rank. Gale looked surprised and pleased he had bothered to ask her permission, “Point the way, Prince.”
  “Wait a moment.” Gust said, closing his eyes. He extended his senses, his mind to the forest around him, and found the life all around him. Watch for a foe, but do not let it see you! Tell us how best to escape, and lead us to safety. Then he broke communion, with a forceful conviction of direction now in his mind.
  “Still West.” Gust shrugged. “Let’s pick up the pace, though. I don’t want it to come while we’re asleep.” Vistan shivered, picturing some beast that devoured specters, which seemed to grow with each passing conjecture.

  The night never seemed dark enough, Lastair observed, looking towards the bright moon above. Only an amateur needed the night as an ally anyway. He could kill them in the broad light of day, if need be. Scanning the area, he decided he was still on track. The mountainous region of Mexico was tiring and apt to misguide the less perceptive traveler. It would be weeks before he could make it all the way up into the heart of the Kingdom of Water. There was time enough. The job would be done and the war would end, without the loss of a single soldier. Venus would rule the earth. For a Venusian, that was the difference between life and death. Dull black scales covered the draconian, slick to the touch and obscure to the eye. Beady, black eyes widened underneath cheap, black cloth, to gather the light and see as well as if it were day. Leathery wings flexed and luxuriated in the freedom of motion lost for far too long within the human court. They were black. At a distance of eight meters, Lastair was part of the night. Small, black, poisoned daggers nestled on the wrists, in his boots, and in the crock between his wings. He was the most proficient assassin the Kingdom of Fire had ever been graced with--and something was trying to eat him for dinner this night. Wicked, razor teeth twisted into a smile, so menacing and amused that the bravest of knights would have fled at the sight of it. The sound of its motion filled Lastair’s ears. Natural or Venusian? In the lands saturated in the light of their patron, one was as likely as the other. A troll, Lastair figured by the sound of the as yet unseen gait of the predator. Let it become the prey. A gentle pressure, and a spring was triggered. A hollow-tipped foot of certain death rested in his black-scaled fist, so adeptly clutched that it seemed only one more appendage of the warped monster.
  There. A narrowing of eyes as they focused on the foe, and then Lastair launched himself. Lastair’s scream shattered the peaceful night, and before the troll could recover, Lastair had already stepped away to watch the gruesome effects of his weapon overtake his cousin. Almost a waste to even bother with a dagger, Lastair thought annoyedly, replacing the spent dagger with another laden with poison. Underneath him kicked and bellowed a troll, blood pumping out its stomach, boiling. Lastair had aimed for it, as stomach wounds were the most painful deaths. None of that for the humans, Lastair cautioned himself. One swift slice across the throat and then away. He did not want his enemy to feel pain, he wanted death, and so there was no time for games such as this. Lastair spat at his pathetic foe, and went to build a campfire for the night. He doubted anything else would bother him until day.
*  *  *
  “Damn it all, but I think this horse is trying to kill me.” Vistan muttered.
  “What was that?” Gust asked, miffed at the interruption of his instruction.
  “I’m sorry, go on please.” Vistan offered quickly. It was just these lessons seemed so boringly simple. He’d done this all before, he just couldn’t remember what he’d done. Somewhere within, all that knowledge remained, but only so that it could torment the young boy and distract him from his lessons. Damn backlash.
  “All right, when you use the word ‘you’ with Uranus, there are maybe twelve different conjugations. If you don’t say it right, it’ll either fizzle or backfire, so try to pay attention. If you’re talking to Uranus himself, then you must say. . .”
  “Sir, under the circumstances, don’t you think you can teach this boy later?” Herkam politely suggested. The man looked tense enough for a bird song to draw his sword. They had been chased for days, and no matter how fast or slow they moved, the creature behind them had stayed just there. Most of the people had grown accustomed, even comfortable with the situation. Excepting Laura and Herkam.
  “What else is there to do? Whatever that thing out there is, it’s obviously not going to try itself against us, so we might as well forget it.” Gust’s placating tone, to everyone’s surprise, actually did seem to relax the armsmaster.
  “And what if this thing is only biding its time, and will strike when we are the least prepared?” Herkam retorted.
  “You’re letting yourself defeat yourself, Herkam! If you expect the worse, and prepare for it at all times, you’ll end up so tense you can’t sleep, or enjoy a moment of peace. Take my advice, don’t read too far into things, or it’ll eat you up.”
  “My lord, when your life and the lives of our kingdom are threatened, my own happiness must take a lower priority. Don’t you realize how much is riding on our mission?”
  “Uranus watches over us, his power rides beside us, and Neptune’s floats above. Nothing short of an elemental could challenge us. So lay your mind at rest, and let me prepare this boy as best I can for the quest he is destined to fulfill.” Though put in a reasonable voice, the underlying tone was that of a command, and so Herkam clamped his jaw shut. Gust saw his friend’s look, and thought how this night’s sword practice was going to be. He sighed royally, “Oh come on, Herkam, you’re sulking like a child. Have you forgotten how to take orders along with your age? Some times I think my father far too uptight and ceremonial, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am your prince. Maybe the world’s most perfect prince would stand alongside the fisherman and never order anyone to do anything, but a prince who wants to accomplish what is best for his kingdom can not be so virtuous. Herkam, I am such a prince, and I will use my royal authority on this trip, and instead of pouting about it, live with it, because I’m not changing because you think it is unfair.” The chastening seemed to fall on deaf ears. Gust searched Herkam’s eyes for any sign of acquiesce, found none, sighed again, and made his way back to the front of the line alongside the princess.
  “And now I’ve lost him, too.” Gust said, misery only slightly veiled from Gale. “Oh Lars! Why you? Why not Uranus, or the archmage? Why did it have to be my two greatest friends put into the greatest peril? If the war ever reaches you, you shan’t survive it. All because of my own selfish, stupid wish to travel with good company!” Gust’s words were spoken from the heart, and Gale felt guilty to intrude upon them, but that did not stop her from trying to ease his soul.
  “Could you really have stopped him from coming?” Gale challenged. “Does the world have to revolve around you so, that everything is your fault, and you are the only person capable of making a decision? Will you blame yourself for Vistan’s plight, now? After all, if Lars hadn’t come neither would have the boy.”
  “So now you call me arrogant, insult me of being a pompous ass, all with the pretence of trying to make me feel better? You truly are a witch. Just let me suffer like any human does, and stop judging me!” Gust answered heatedly. Anger boiled in her head, took sharp edges in her throat, then faded away. For after all, what person did not descend into self-blame when those closest to himself were lost? Why did she expect so much more from him? Could she even swallow her own advice, if Laura or Fisher were lost? For the first time, she realized that he was right. It was bewildering. Gust, seeing the silence before him, instantly regretted his outburst. Bards did not lose control of their emotions, they used them, molded them into pieces of beauty, and projected them for the sake of good. Now he had hurt the girl that inside was the only hope for the continuation of millions. She had the dedication and altruism to risk her life for the sake of her kingdom, and he answered such courage with anger. He had every right to be angry, but he didn’t have the right to doom every single living being on her continent to death, so such anger should never, ever be shown.
  “I’m sorry.” Gust said belatedly, with all the force of truth behind him, though for perhaps a different reason than Gale was led to believe. “I know you were only trying to help. If I hadn’t wanted you to speak, I shouldn’t have confided in you. I’m sorry.”
  “No, its all right. You’re right, I can’t pass judgments on you when I don’t even realize how hard it must be to lose a person I’ve never even seen. I should comfort you, not attack you in your moment of weakness. I’ll try to change, Gust. Please don’t hold this against me.” Gale was just as determined to leave no bitterness when the time came to meld their elements. The Altar of Spa would not have clemency on them because they’d been under a lot of stress--Either it was true love or not. Gale was angry, though, when she saw the uninterested, distracted gaze he gave her. How dare he treat me with such loathing? Gust suddenly turned in his saddle towards the bedraggled, weary companions behind him.
  “We are being herded south. It doesn’t want us to reach civilization, or maybe it even knows of our destination, but either way we can’t just leave the thing alone. What shall it be--fight or flight?” Gale blushed in embarrassment. Is this the way she always looked when Hydrosphere conversed with her? How is it that the rest of the people are willing to let me do this, and yet the first time I get a taste of my own medicine, I rebel? Am I really so immature?
  “Well said, lad! There may be hope for your wits, yet! Let me ask you this, though: Is this decision really rational or instinctual? Fear is the power behind our mind, giving birth to this oh so basic of choices. But does it alert us to the problem, or solve the problem on its own? Or is fear really part of human instinct?”
  Gust, first looking amused, by the end of it looked so confused that he had to shake his head to regain his own train of thought. “Fisher, this can wait until later. What I want to know now is if we’re ready to fight for our right to press on to Irkutsk.”
  “Maybe we aren’t ready, sire, but I doubt Hydrosphere, on his own turf, with the power of Neptune all around him, could lose.” Vistan submitted.
  “Time really is as much an enemy as Venus. We can spare a few delays, but we haven’t reached even a single key and we might very well need those delays for the future. If at all possible, we must fight.” Herkam agreed. Laura, looking lost, was infuriated with the important decision transpiring before her without her input, all because the stupid idiots from across the sea couldn’t craft a translation spell. “I demand to know what’s going on!” Laura interrupted.
  Gale, embarrassed once more for having forgotten her friend’s plight, at once translated for her. Three men gazed unabashedly at their companion, the sound of her voice as beautiful in some ways as Gust’s own. The language barrier prevented any familiarity with her, but the mystery only added to her allure. Such beauty had never been imagined! What patron shines so brightly upon us to include her in our quest? Yet as the days went by, and one grew accustomed to the fact that no more would be presented, she became less and less the subject of one’s eyes. Which Laura neither liked nor disliked, because she had no interest nor grudge with any of them. Now it had reached the point that everyone had actually forgotten her existence! Silence and stealth had a way of doing that to a person, and Laura could not help but possess both those qualities at all times. Managing to find the exact spot for the next horse’s step which would least disturb the environs, and to project such utter confidence that she in fact belonged where she was were instincts imbedded as deep as the need to eat and drink. Even Hydrosphere, who was invisible by Neptune, seemed to be more noticeable than the Kingdom of Water’s greatest assassin, their patron’s most spectacular, priceless jewel. It was confusing, and in a way scary, to be exposed as so vulnerable when the hunter remained just out of their sight. Herkam figured that if there was such a person in the North, than there would be another in the South. So if they could not protect themselves from her, they were going to die to the assassin’s dagger. Unless of course Laura could handle her counterpart, and they’d cancel each other out. But even thinking of such incredible beauty, lost, was enough to tear his stone heart. He would not allow it, and thus it was up to him to defend her as best he could. He assumed rightly that if it came to straight battle, an armsmaster could dispatch of even the best assassins, and thus Laura couldn’t just be abandoned to her fate in the midst of a furious battle. Her work was in the night, in the shadows or in some lord’s feather bed. A blademaster of the Lehrer division’s place was under the morning sun, and so it was his duty to make sure that when that sun set, the goddess that rode alongside them would still be there to thrive in it.
  “She agrees, we can’t run forever.” Gale exclaimed, a veil of excitement riding her words. Here was an assembly of the greatest warriors of the Earth, maybe it was time to test themselves. Gale summoned the language of magic to the fore of her mind, and thrilled at the expectation of letting her patron fill the vessel of her soul with his essence. Never did she feel more alive than before her spell was cast, never was she so drained than after. It is so worth it, Hydrosphere. All its pitfalls and limitations, I’ll accept everything for that one brief moment when you feel like part of something so much more!--Don’t joke, it couldn’t happen.--Well, I’m glad, because I think we’re up against something that doesn’t give a damn about physical weapons--No! Leave him out of it. We don’t need his magic.--Please, Hydrosphere. The elemental was silent, Gale imagined the emotions broiling within that small bit of the great Triton-orbited stellar body. Just how human is water? How human are our patrons? It was a matter she could ask Fisher about, he’d probably figured it all out long ago anyway. After all, what was the point of being philosophical when you had him around? Then she noticed the five pairs of eyes sitting on her, and embarrassedly asked, “What?”
  “Oh, don’t let us interrupt your important conversation, your highness.”
  “Jealousy is such a weak emotion, daughter. If a thing is coveted, one must make steps to acquire it, not just expect it to be yours. ‘Jealousy is the wish spoken to the well,’ as Kremmlich would say. ‘Desire without drive.’ If it was rightfully yours, then you would already have--”
  “Stop speaking riddles and making vague references, old man. If you want to insult me to my face, then let’s have it! Otherwise, shut up!”
  “Laura, you and Fisher both shut up, and you too, Hydrosphere!” Gust angrily broke composure, not knowing in all three cases what was even being said. “Now Gale, what we were asking is if you thought that thing really will attack us. After all, it could’ve done it any time this week, why now?”
  “What do you want to do, hunt it?” Gale asked incredulously. Then, seeing the somber look on his face. . . “By Neptune, you do! Didn’t you hear that thing die? If it leaves us alone, why should we go out of our way just to kill it?”
  “Because Herkam thinks it’s tracking us for someone else. That thing is Venus’s eyes. Eventually the fist will follow, unless we blind Venus and fade back into anonymity. Fire must have spotted us at Akron, and is already sending something at us, that’s for sure. We’re falling into a trap, no matter where we go, because this trap is that of the fourth dimension. We can either spring the trap and hope to Uranus that little ball of water can take Flamme Falconen, or we can kill this thing and never have to worry again.”
  “Don’t you think that if that Spirit-eater had reported to the Kingdom of Fire, they would’ve already attacked? They certainly didn’t hesitate throwing everything they had against the two of us before, no matter what the odds.” Gust just gave a bow as if it weren’t his job to show her the light, indicating with a flourish who she should be talking to. Herkam looked nettled to have to talk, giving a betrayed look at his prince.
  “Their tactics have changed. They know we travel with an elemental, and there’s
nothing big enough that could survive all the way up to the heart of the Wasser Reich that could challenge him. So they send up an assassin, or a bunch of assassins, who knows exactly where we are at all times, who’s on watch, when we sleep, when we’re vulnerable. . . . Either one noble or the other will die, though it would be a suicide mission.” A dangerous glint in Herkam’s eye attested to that fact. “No amount of human carefulness can protect the both of you at all times so long as It is out there watching. I think Laura would agree to that, right?” Herkam said it in such a manner that he would accept only one answer.
  There was a brief pause for the sake of translation, then. “He’s right, Gale.” Laura said ashamedly, knowing she was the one who was supposed to be on Gale’s side all the time. “If I were hunting us, we’d be dead. And I doubt I’m the best one of us out there.” Laura hated admitting to be an assassin, her entire life with the elves taught her a deep respect and love for all living things. Every time she heard that word, even in her own mind, she twinged as if caught in betrayal. If her kin saw how she’d applied the skills they had given her, Laura was sure they would take their own lives in shame. It was a hard burden to live under, but she knew that some things were even more important than life, or morality. Like King and Country, and the patron that had given them life when her ancestors had called out in despair, in anguish and pain for the acts they’d done to themselves. So she would serve as best she could, and elvish scruples which had led them to forsake Neptune in his time of need could be damned.
  “Fine.” Gale sighed. “But doesn’t anyone stop to think as to how we’re going to catch the thing that has kept up with all our horses at full gallop for over an hour?” Vistan winced at the memory, when he had been wondering if he was going to be the last in the family line. . .
  “Surely Neptune has something for just such an occasion.” Gust remarked scornfully towards her pessimism. “Go on and ask Hydrosphere for the words.” What was supposed to be a diplomatic way of allowing Gale to ignore everyone again, ended up making Gale glare and her hand actually twitch from suppressed desire to slap him. “I am a Magi, I passed the tests! Don’t you dare say Hydrosphere is the only reason I can do anything, you chauvinist ass!” Silence was thick enough to scoop into a bowl and be served on the dinner table. Thick enough to last the remainder of the day. And night.

Chapter 6. Mentors
The hum of crickets, though loud in this densely wooded land, had already faded into silence to Vistan’s ears. The brain is a curious thing, to be able to become familiar, and thus unconcerned, with a sight or sound. Vistan thought of this and many things, lying against a tree trunk who’s roughness he’d long become used to. The moon and stars shone through the forest canopy, giving beauty to an otherwise menacing world. Sleep was far from his mind, and as he gazed towards the heavens, locating his patron amongst the billions of fires in the sky, green eyes glowed with their own light in contemplation. “What do you mean for me, Uranus of the many rings and tilted axis, what is it you want?” Silence. Vistan sighed within himself. Somewhere out there his father, who had dared to assume that he was the Chosen One, battled for the lives of millions of people and one god. While his son, who everyone believed to be the one of the prophecies, sat in the forest of the Wasser Reich, struggled to recall the words that harnessed the wind. “I can not do it, don’t you see this? Go to my father, let him succeed in his quest, and gain the exoneration of his Kingdom, which shuns him for his hubris. Forgive him, my lord, and let him succeed where I will fail. I beg of you, for you, do not put your faith in me.” Silence. Vistan stopped thinking for a moment to let the night seep into him, let his worries drift away with the slight breeze that let the trees sing, and gave his unfettered love to the mistress of the night. She had held his hand, and had cared for him. It always came back to this on these sleepless nights. The prophecy was true, all of it, and that was what brought tears to his eyes. A sixteen year old wept to the chorus of the trees and the crickets.

Love shall be his enemy,
power his undoing,
In the caress of water there is fire,
Divided, he must become whole.
Human, he must become Uranus.
In death, comes life.

It had made so little sense, the first time he had heard it from the Archmage. But now it was coming far too clear for his own wishes. Was ignorance truly bliss? Knowledge was power, power was his undoing, thus knowledge was his foe. Thus the very prophecy that condemned knowledge provided it, and was thus paradoxical. But how could he save his land without power? Weakness was his undoing! The sounds of muffled coughing came from somewhere near the campfire. The night was his, how dare someone intrude upon it! But Vistan laughed at his own reaction, and went to join the fellow night bird.
  Unsurprisingly, it was Fisher who read by the firelight, utterly engrossed in the words of ancients. Knowledge was power! Vistan repeated, laughing. Here was knowledge, knit up in this bag of bones, but Vistan doubted the man could even lift Herkam’s sword. Still, this might be the very person he needed right now. The night always led him to philosophy.
  “Would you mind if I talked to you?” Vistan asked, hoping not to startle him.
  “About what, lad?” Fisher calmly put away his book, a glint in his eye Vistan just barely caught before it faded away. Could he have orchestrated this meeting? No, Vistan decided, he could not imagine Fisher as a clever manipulator. He must have just mistaken the reflecting firelight or something.
  “Is ignorance truly bliss?” Vistan opened.
  “That depends on who we are considering as ignorant.” Fisher answered vaguely.
  “For me, then. Would I be happier not knowing my future, not having people expect so much out of me, and having to live up to those expectations?”
  “If you can live up to expectations, why wouldn’t they be expected of you?”
  “You avoid the question, old man.”
  “As do you.” Fisher chuckled, leaning back as if ready to start a game of patient silence. The fire snapped in the background, seeming to join in Fisher’s humour.
  “Fine.” Vistan gave in. “Because people shouldn’t know others well enough to expect things of you that you can actually accomplish. Because one should be able to pretend he can’t achieve those things.”
  “So are you angry because people know you well enough to know your limits?”
  “I answered your question, now you answer mine.” Vistan was seemingly perfectly willing to wait till the sun rose this time.
  “Sometimes questions can only be answered with more questions, sometimes the answer is a question.”
  “Go on.” Vistan decided to play the fool to fluster this man’s spiels.
  “Would you be happier, when the thunderbolt splits your land asunder?”
  “More questions. . .But I see your point. Either way, it doesn’t look like a very happy existence.”
  “Duty is prone to do that, lad. Gods have a very large perspective on things, Vistan, and the happiness of their people is more important than the happiness of their person. You’re their tool, Vistan. You are a robot, a weapon employed by your Patron to defeat the enemy. It is your job to sharpen this weapon, so that it will at least be remembered and honoured in the future.”
  “You expect me to sacrifice my humanity?” Vistan challenged.
  “What does the prophecy tell you?” Fisher asked, knowingly.
  “It tells me that you’re a lying, insane geezer who doesn’t know what the hell he asks out of a sixteen-year old boy!” Vistan hotly answered, to hide his fear. It tells me he’s right. It tells me he can figure from intuition things that no one else alive could guess at. It tells me knowledge is power. It tells me that I have no value. It tells me Uranus has abandoned me, disposed of me. . . Ignorance is bliss. But Vistan could not find any more anger against Gale’s uncle, and so became calm again. Be a machine, he said. Machines could not be angry, machines were calm. Machines were like him.
  “I’m sorry. We’re going to be riding hard tomorrow, I suggest you get some sleep.” Vistan sighed, and wondered if he could ever recapture the peace he’d felt just minutes ago.
  “I may not wear the robes, boy, but I’m as much a mage as any of you. There’s hardly a man among us who could not claim as much. Sleep will come in its own time.” And Fisher returned to his book, or perhaps he didn’t return at all. Vistan would never know, he’d already left the domain of the fire and the loon’s piercing words. His mind remembered the warm touch of her healing hands upon his cheeks, the last time they had run their horses almost to death. His mind rebelled.

  “No!” Herkam remonstrated, slapping Gust in the ribs with his wooden make-shift practice sword. “What are you doing? You think moving around is clever or something? As long as you’re going to keep backing up instead of meeting my attack, why don’t you just run away? In a real sword fight you can’t just keep disengaging, the enemy’s all around you, with only people like you to trust yourself to. What would an army do with a thousand of your ilk?”
  “Well,” Gust smiled from underneath a grimace of pain, “It would sure as hell be easier to reach Spa.” Herkam was not caught by the humorous apology. He glared death towards the man he was sworn to die for, like a teacher to a schoolchild who’d fallen asleep in the middle of class. “Again, this time with at least some semblance of a sword-pattern.”
  “Come at me.” Gust said bravely, not bothering to tell the armsmaster that he’d been fencing with the greatest for nearly ten years. If it did not show, then it did not matter, and so it wasn’t worth comment. The bruises lining his legs, arms, and chest proved quite well that he hadn’t learned as much as he had thought. Falling into a guard position, he let his thoughts wash away with the wind, and fixed his eyes with a stare that encompassed everything and focused on nothing. He’d learned long ago that if he ever looked at just one thing, then it would be a deception and he’d be caught by it. The only way to tell what was happening was to keep your eyes open. It hurt, but pain was in the back of his mind now, there was only Herkam. Without preamble, Herkam went from a completely relaxed position to a lunge, which Gust easily deflected, backing up a step to keep the distance between them. Herkam grimaced, but Gust didn’t have enough time to wonder what he did wrong, as the attack never stopped with just one stroke for a blademaster. The clap of wood upon wood played its own kind of song, filling the air with vibrant energy and joyous power. After a long flurry of blows, Herkam gave up on the jab and did a more conservative swing, ready to go on the defensive if Gust went for it. He didn’t fall into the trap of arrogance, though, and continued to simply parry. A few more attacks, and then Herkam went for a deadly downward stroke, even with it being wood. Stopping the sword straight on, Gust didn’t wait for a strength contest, but slid his blade down, trying to disarm Herkam. But it was too slow, and Gust found himself on the ground, tripped with a blade to his throat. “When the swords are pinned, forget the swords. The swords will be just fine for the nonce, go for your dagger, or if you’ve already lost it kick.”
  Panting, Gust nodded, trying to hide the sharp ache in his rear. Riding tomorrow was going to be great fun. . . “How do you counter a dagger?”
  “Disengage.” Herkam said nonchalantly. Gust looked at him for a moment, waiting to see if Herkam would admit to his hypocrisy, then shook his head in despair, and went to regain his sword. Herkam gave Gust some room, looking ready to run five miles with that armour on his back with breath to spare, and asked, “When are you going to attack, Prince?”
  “When you teach me how, blademaster. Right now I prefer to not feel pain.” Was that an appreciative smile? No, he must have been hit on the head too hard that last time. “Come at me.”

  “Sire, the Autumn Bloom has arrived, couriers are ready to report the advancements on the fleet.” Bernardo sighed inwardly, wondering how long into the morning he had had to oversee the retreat of his continental army. “Send him in.”
  A brisk, well-adorned messenger kneeled, then rose to hand the sealed document to the nearest aide. A court-mage did a peremptory check for common poisons or magical traps, nodded and the page nervously approached the King’s throne. “Sire, Ricardo hopes that his new battle-plan will meet your approval.” The courier obviously recited. Bernardo didn’t bother to reply, taking the scroll annoyedly and ripping it open.
Where is your shadow now?
Guards!” Bernardo shouted, desperately trying to draw his dagger. It was all too late, the King knew it but could not so easily watch his country fall to ruin. The fire-sphere exploded against the two nearest ceremonial spearmen, and the courier followed his projectile with blinding speed. No knife, no concealed weapon which the court mages could’ve spotted, but the simple edge of his hand, and the most powerful man in the world fell to the floor with a sickening crack, his head impossibly askew from his shoulders. The next instant fire enveloped the successful assassin, and the fourth dead body fell as ash onto the ruby floor. The Archmage observed the scene dispassionately. The first prophecy has been met. No blood shall be spilled upon the stone of Venus. But that did not save our lord, as he had hoped. Death finds a way. And now the brother shall come, and what will become of the next oracle? How much fire resides in a shadow?
  Lastair glided on the winds, finding a suitable gap in the woods to rest and drink. Venusians were not elementals, they gained their sustenance from Earth like the children of Nature, they simply did not come from Earth. Jet-black legs settled on the thick layer of leaves, as his wings settled into their resting position. He was getting close, but North America was a long distance to cover unseen no matter what you were. He had met with the Fire Kingdom’s army just a few days back, stunningly on the retreat and on the verge of rout. He had gone as Lastair, the King’s shadow, to the commanding officer to learn of the stunning play of events. Blusteringly, the man assured Lastair that there was no problem and it was just the cowardly Venusian vermin, probably to avoid the executioner’s knife that stood before him. How little did he know that by his very words he came far closer to death than Bernardo would ever have sent him. Why is it that everyone sees our lord as unforgiving and tyrannical? Lastair questioned in disgust. Time and time again he had pardoned failure and allowed for mistakes, only retiring those of supreme incompetence. As the King had told him in private conversations, those who served Venus were all precious, and to kill any one of them would be to betray their patron. How few the number that had a higher loyalty than to the Kingdom of Fire! How lucky the world to have such a man as Bernardo to unite and rule it! But in the matter of allowing Gale’s survival, for once his wisdom did not extend far enough. It was worrisome that the war might last long enough for Gale to conceivably gather all the keys, that the armies of Water could mount a successful defense after so many losses. Maybe it was the waxing might of Water’s magic that managed to stave off disaster. . .Reports were certainly confused as to how the Blood Imps, Goblins, Trolls and such had been slaughtered. The lack of human observers was an obvious folly, but the Commander had said it helped with morale that not a single life had been lost in the war. He countered that as long as Water knew it fought nothing and hurt no one, then it would collapse psychologically long before it lost militarily. Lastair supposed the idea had merit, but seeing as how it had accomplished this. . . It didn’t matter anymore. The war was out of his hands. He had only one duty left to Venus, and that was Gale’s slit throat. Craning his neck down to the stream, he eagerly gulped from his enemy’s element, inky scales rippling as each ball of water traveled down his neck and into his limbs, giving them new life. He could not log himself down with a meal, as he had a long way’s yet to fly, so with a pang of self-pity, the Draconian set to the air. A flurry of dead leaves slowly resettled in his wake, and then there was no sign of his passage at all.

  “And so with great mourning, our brave and wise King has entered the eternal city. I assure you the treacherous, foul acts of those to the North will be avenged in blood ten-fold. The body before us had the potential to lead the world to a new age of peace and prosperity, now we can only hope Venus shall shine upon our Kingdom still, after such a great tragedy. We can not lose hope in the face of adversity, Venus willing, we shall be stolid, and advance upon those who have stooped to assassins to hurt our Kingdom. Yes, a battle has been lost, but they were creatures of magic, subject to Venus’s will. We have sinned against our patron, and this is her just retribution. But if we all pray forgiveness, and pledge our lives anew to our keeper, perhaps the Goddess of Love shall find mercy in her heart once more. I beg of you, my people, to pray with me now for the soldiers risking their lives on the front, and our King’s soul to rise to Spa, and for Aphrodite’s forgiveness, so that we can serve her better and truer than ever before.” Ricardo stepped down, exhilarated in the taste of power and leadership. In the sky above, the fire mages etched shimmering curtains, silent explosions, and brilliant drizzles of light to honour his brother’s ascent. Ricardo thought a moment on whether or not he earnestly wished his brother to reach Spa, then decided he did. He held nothing against his brother, he was a bright and strong ruler, but that did not mean he was willing to remain an underling all his life. He was destined for great things, Venus had chosen him as the one person brave enough to do what was necessary to win. The mere thought of his daring sent shivers of fearful rapture down his spine. My brother, you could never do this, and that is why Venus chose me above you. You failed, but I will see that your spirit is saved, by succeeding where you have failed, I can put your soul at rest, knowing that all is in good hands.
  Sire, the funeral goes well, does it not?” The Archmage intruded, no doubt plugging for information as to how his new master would act. Ricardo resented it, too many times his brother had forgiven himself for such impertinence. Was he to live under his brother’s shadow, even when it reached from beyond the grave? No, it was time his people learned respect for their new, rightful King.
  “You will speak to me only if spoken to. You will see to it that our Venusians will be better controlled for the rest of the war, and you will find out this enemy ‘secret weapon’ and nullify it. Until you have accomplished these tasks, I wish to never hear your sniveling voice again.”
  “As you say, my lord.” The Archmage, annoyedly, seemed to not have taken any offense. How could he be so calm? He had just treated him like a common page, did he have no pride for his office? It seemed as if tormenting this man was going to be a harder task than he had thought. Oh well. There was time for that later, right now powerful magic users were rare and vital to Fire’s success. Right now, he needed someone who could wield the strength necessary to break chains and unlock doors. Ricardo closed his eyes again, trying to banish the visions that took his breath away from the sheer scope of it. Soon. Not yet. The people must accept me before such a thing can be ordered. Or else my hard-earned ascension will be lost as quickly as it was gained. “Someone get me a peach!” Ricardo thrillingly ordered simply to watch the servants scurry like ants to meet his demand. Being King was going to be a lot of fun.
  As the sun rose, the aroma of roasting meat seeped into the lairs of those unwilling to admit the progress of the day. It teased and tickled, hinting of wonderful things if only they would wake and come to it. And so, as the mist-shrouded dawn lent a dreamy quality to the wilderness, three heroes reluctantly left their beds. One was still in full armour, steel sword easily within reach of his sleeping form. Another, aware of her effect on others, kindly remained wrapped in cloth as she slept. The third, bare as a babe and only seventy times as old, grumbled loudly for all the camp to hear as bones popped and snapped into some sort of common arrangement that was meant to be natural. “Rabbit?” Fisher asked appreciatively. “Gust, me boy, I didn’t know you were a woodsman!” In the man’s excitement, he forgot clothing entirely as he went to clap his soon-to-be-nephew-in-law on the back. “A man of many skills indeed! I don’t know what I’d do without you, Prince of Wind.” Fisher actually drooled at the sight of the plump, well-charred meat.
  “Ummm. . .” Gust tried to withdraw, blushing a bright crimson. Gale looked none the better, about ready to die of shame. “Uncle,” she whispered almost as loudly as a shout, “your clothes!” Laura, binding up her hair again for the ride, brightened at the sound of her own tongue. “What’s that, Gale? I’m glad you haven’t forgotten your own language, what with Hydrosphere and all.” Then Laura looked up. For a moment everyone was silent, though Fisher only because his eyes were entranced upon succulent meat after days of dry rations. Then, Laura averted her head, “I think I’m going to puke.” “Eh? Why? The meat looks fine to me.” Fisher looked vexed that Gust’s cooking skills were being challenged, after all if Gust was to get Gale he had to win as much praise as he could.
  Gale seemed to actually be wilting in embarrassment. “It’s not the meat, uncle. I fear you have forgotten to dress again.”
  “Oh, so I have! Silly me. Sorry about that, my lovely. Be back in a sec.” Gust couldn’t hold back a chuckle upon seeing Gale’s crestfallen face. “It’s all right, Gale, I won’t say a thing.”
  “You don’t have to say it for me to hear it.” Gale said, though not harshly.
  “Well, aren’t you going to ask me how I actually got the rabbit? Surely you don’t think I, a Prince, knows the slightest thing about setting snares!”
  “Why don’t we just accept it as a gift from Neptune?” Gale waved it off, looking quite hungrily herself at the three juicy carcasses.
  “A gift, Princess, but not from Neptune. This is from Earth.” Gust said with a tinge of sorrow.
  “You don’t mean you can make animals. . .”
  “I thought we would all appreciate it, and what with the wolves being fought out by Neptunians, the rabbits are too numerous anyway. . .” Gust obviously did not accept his own logic in his heart, though, as he could not break his gaze to the dead thing he had lulled into complacency and then betrayed. Gale looked up to see Gust’s troubled eyes, and saw how much life meant to him for just the briefest moments. It changed her, in a subtle way, it changed her perception of him forever. “I’m sorry, Gust. I didn’t know. . . I hope you didn’t think you were forced into this. I mean, we can’t demand this of you if it hurts that much.” Gust shook his head, the window into his soul shattered along with his transfixed gaze.
  “It’s all right. Just a few rabbits. That’s all. I hope you enjoy them, I think I’ll take a walk for a bit.” Grabbing his sword from the nearby tent, he strapped it to his back and walked into the forest. Gale thought for a moment to join him, then thought better of it. But to eat the food offered in such a way would be to betray his grief as something trivial. For all it’s smell, Gale could only look at the food before her as so much ash.
  “Is it all right to look now?” Laura asked from underneath her luxuriant hair. Gale smiled at her friend’s antics. “Yes. And nice ‘delicate woman’ act there, too. It’s not as if you haven’t seen him before.”
  “If that’s what I have to do to teach him manners, then it is worth it.” Laura playfully bantered, sitting down next to the meal and taking some for herself. “Where are the boys?” Laura asked, sharp eyes scanning the area. It amazed Gale for a moment how she managed to handle the meat so that not a thing stained hand or mouth. . . “Oh. Gust is sort of out of it, and I suppose Herkam is already getting a jump on where our prey is. As to Vis--”
  “You really think we can catch the thing?” Laura asked, eyeing the horses skeptically. Gale shook her head glumly. “We can only try. It’s funny, whenever I ask Vistan something like that, he just answers with utter confidence that Uranus will see them through. Almost makes me ashamed of how little dependence we show towards our own patron.”
  “We are not babies to be shielded, the greatest service we can do for Neptune is to serve ourselves. If we can’t trust our own abilities. . .”
  “Oh no it’s not like that. Just. . . well, have you ever really looked into his eyes?”
  “They’re green.” Laura pretended to not take it as anything more.
  “For me, it’s like they want to just eat me up. That’s how much power they have, I’ve never been closer to anything with as much raw magical strength as this calm, sweet little boy. You too.”
  “What?” Laura caught herself asking.
  “The elemental is offering a duel. I told him he’d lose, and I think Hydrosphere knows it, too. In truth that lad scares me. I’m glad he’s not around. Like a time bomb ticking down, there’s no way all that power is going to be restrained forever.”
  “Time bomb?” Laura asked.
  “Old simile, before the war. We pick up a lot of weird phrases in court.”
  “Oh.” Laura took another bite, eyes closed to saviour the taste on her tongue. “Aren’t you going to have any?” Laura asked concernedly.
  “Oh, umm. Well, I’m not hungry, and I figured Herkam could do well enough for the both of us.”
  “Sorry, ladies, but Herkam won’t be seeing any meat by the time he comes back!” Fisher advanced threateningly on the second rabbit, as if it were still alive and ready to bolt. Then a shout of warning, followed by a deafening torrent of flames. Gale instinctively rose her arms to shield her from the blistering heat, thinking only that she was going to die.

  Gust placed his hand on a moss-covered log, preparing to vault the obstruction and go on deeper. But the sheer softness of it brought him to a halt, and Gust thought of the feather beds of his quarters, comparing the forces of nature and man. Slowly sinking to the ground, Gust wondered how long ago he had last slept. Herkam could not keep this up, Gust thought. Surely he will collapse before I do! No mere blademaster could swordfight with any measure of skill for more than a few days without sleep. It wasn’t humanly possible. The Prince found himself at his own limits though, muscles throbbing in protest and bruises aching in reprimand. You are a bard, not a fencer, give it up! But he knew that it had been his lack of skill with the sword which had almost lost them before the journey had even begun, aboard the Cherry Blossom. For the sake of the Fatherland, he must learn how to wield the blade as well as the deepsong. Back resting against moss covered tree, Gust allowed himself to relax and find the music playing all around him. He would make a song for those rabbits, he decided, he would honour them for their trust and beauty, and then he could live with himself again. But first, maybe he would just rest his eyes. . .
Gust’s eyes popped open, his scouts were sending to him. “Is it our spirit-eater?”
They are birds, but they do not fly, they burn, and they are faster than the fastest of raptors. Will they burn our forest?”
  “Damn it all but I thought. . . They will burn nothing, on my life!” Shouting at the top of his lungs, Gust tried to save the Princess: “FLAMME FALCONEN!” Then there was an explosion, and the world was fire. The words flew into being, the spell at his lips in blessed speed, he knew if he failed, then the next strafe would not be a near miss. “Uranus, Colpiregli abominevoleda locielo!” He felt the surge of magic flow through him, then it was released, and Gust gasped at the draining, suddenly thinking of Lars’s fate. From the smoke-filled, glowing red sky came a wind. Gust couldn’t see the Flame Falcon, but knew the wind would strike it, and he only hoped that would be enough. Then the gust came, with the strength of a hurricane, a force that stripped leaves from off mighty oaks and whipped by the fire that cringed in fear, to slam with the force of silent thunder into the hapless Venusian. The wind’s passage choked off the falcon’s dying call, but Gust did not wait to hear it. Running back towards the camp, he cursed himself for separating from the only woman capable of saving the world. The camp! He demanded.
  It burns. Came the reply, freezing his blood in its simplicity.
  Damn it all, do something! Gust was already short of breath, a bad sign. If he couldn’t provide the physical energy for his magic, or the breath for his deepsong, then they were all as good as dead. How did the damn things penetrate this far? Wasn’t there any sort of defense left in this accursed Kingdom? Behind him, the forest was alight, but thankfully not spreading. Ahead, it was so choked in smoke he couldn’t even see the ground beneath. No one could survive a flock of Flame Falcons, he thought in despair. I’m alone. But all he could do was run, and trust in Uranus, and ask for his aid. “Dajuliet, Usciresbarazze dili fumo!” By his wish, the smoke was lifted, to reveal one of the greatest pyrochromatic furies he’d ever laid eyes upon. The children of Venus warred with the incarnation of Neptune, and there seemed to be no certain victor. Stopping only to catch his breath, he marveled at how beautiful their patrons were when at war.

  The world was pain, fire, and the smell of cooking flesh. Everything disappeared in a conflagration of awesome proportions, and Gale could not open her mouth lest her tongue be burned away. She’d never experienced such searing pain in her life, she could feel her clothes grafting to her skin, both disintegrating from the force of the blast. All she wanted was to die, the pain was so bad it reached all her nerves and bones, there was no release or solace from it, no corner of her mind in which she could remain sane. In less than a few seconds, the color beneath her eyes went from burning red to soothing, beckoning black. She was going to die, thank Neptune. And then something slammed into her, and her body exploded in soul-wrenching pain as she smashed into the merciless earth. Something familiar touched her mind, something that called to her with all its strength to live. She could only cringe with the memory of fire, as if she still bathed in it, as if she would always forever feel nothing but pain. She tried to escape the pain, tried to find the darkness once more, but something was pulling her away. On the brink of blissful unconsciousness, water deprived her of her right to escape.
  “By Neptune, get the healing water!” Laura cried, uncaring to her own burns she’d suffered diving through the blast to save her Princess. Herkam spared no time, hurling himself at the saddlebags and dumping everything upon the hard-packed earth. In a matter of maybe seconds, the Kingdom of Wind’s last hope would be extinguished. From above, the sound of flames filled their ears, flying with deadly accuracy towards the remaining companions. The heat almost struck like a fist, but nothing else. Exploding in violent fury, the flames met Hydrosphere’s barrier, and the conflicting magiks flashed electric blue and raging crimson. The ball of water could now be seen, spinning, silent and motionless, trying to defend against at least a dozen firespurts at once. Laura caught the spinning canteen with effortless grace, stuffing it down the sticky, black, crusted excuse for a mouth and screaming at Gale to fight. Gale was still convulsing from the blast, Laura could only look on hopelessly as the blessed Great Lakes failed to achieve anything. “More! Damn it all, give it all to me! She’s dying, we’re losing her!” Laura had lost all semblance of composure, screaming with the franticness of a berserker. More flames came, seeming to make it closer this time before being engulfed by Hydrosphere’s shield. Herkam made no pretense at calm, shaking with frustration at his helplessness. “Gust! Where’s Gust!” The armsmaster shouted at the blistered, red ninja before him. She did not respond, only gushed out the contents of yet another canteen over Gale’s smoking body. Before them, the charred skin fell off, revealing a new layer underneath. The question was if there was enough. “Gust can handle himself,” Fisher stated, “Where’s Vistan?” his calm in the midst of the chaos did nothing to either of the others. Herkam scowled, “Don’t worry, he is fated to live! He is fated to go on and save our Kingdom! Gust has no such protection.” Herkam spat. “By Uranus, I’ll never let that man out of my sight again!” Another wave of heat, with three people underneath who could do nothing to counter it. It was only a matter of time. Without Gale, there was no magic left to attack with. Without Gale, there was no more hope. Hydrosphere had actually drooped closer to the earth, retreating towards the other four humans, letting his barrier fade away on the exterior. Fisher didn’t know it was possible for an elemental to show severe strain. “Well, let’s hope Vistan is okay,” Fisher proclaimed authoritatively, “Or we’re all dead.”

  A green-robed lad, clutching a plain wooden staff, stooped to the stream before him, casting water over his face and hair. The hard travel had engraved dirt into his skin, he had no idea how Laura managed to look so austere, as he was caked in dust from head to toe. There was no time to wash up, but at least he could scrub it off his face and hands before they left. The sun was rising, he noted, they’d want him back in the camp in a bit. They can wait. He decided, some things were more important than speed. He felt like he was going to choke on his own filth if he didn’t do something. Then he heard a shout, too far away to discern any words--followed by one of the most terrible, ear peeling screams he’d ever heard. So loud, so full of pain, and so Gale. Vistan panicked, he could see the camp in flames from where he was, he watched as bright flashes of blue and red filled the sky. She was dead. Just like that. If he had been there, maybe he could’ve warded off the flames. . . Before he knew what he was doing, the apprentice ran for all his life towards certain death. Something awoke inside him, a power so angry it took his breath away, and made him clutch his stomach in reaction. Sparkles popped around him, he could not see straight, green light shimmered like a second cloak around his body. He felt like he was flying through the air. He felt like he could do anything. So caught up in his own elation, no rational thought managed to reach his drunken mind, such as harnessing the power right then. His only remaining conscious thought was to run towards the fire. That was all he’d ever thought. Something seemed to stir through his veins, his senses, filling him with strength. Wildlife fled in terror from the sight of his blazing green eyes. His staff coruscated with molten green energy. Gale was dead and he was the only thing left to avenge her. The psychic safe of backlash burst open with mind-shattering force, and all his spells flowed through him intoxicatingly. The words flew like the wind back into his conscious mind, and Vistan screamed his challenge to the world around him. Fabricating the energy around him, spinning and weaving the infinitesimal radiation that had traveled all the way from Uranus to breathe life to Humanity’s will, Vistan let loose the power so thick in his veins that it filled him with dizzy euphoria.
  Lampo, quasiun agricolturefalce frumento, giusto cosida purgarenostro cielodi lofiammante bastardos!”  
  From the smoking, acrid sky above, so hazed that the world lost all dimensions or limits, green shimmers of light flashed, like ripples in a pond. And from the bursts of magic, came lightning. Each blast a deafening roar, each bolt striking with horrifying precision, each Falcon unleashing a death cry before shattering like red glass back into the air, leaving nothing but a slight sulfuric fume to signal that at some point in time there had been life there. The blinding energy overwhelmed the senses, overflowing the human ability to put meaning and order to every sight and sound, crashing through all senses to form a world that knew only light and sound far too brilliant and strong to ever escape.
  Hydrosphere frantically summoned another shield for the people underneath, a film of blue to lessen, funnel, and filter before the shockwaves could reach those who were vulnerable underneath. Already fatigued, the elemental’s powers did little to help, and Herkam caught in the creature’s lack of motion a sense of stunned, utter fear his own soul reflected ten fold. A boy of only sixteen years, unleashing a force as great in scope as the Archmage had ever performed. Magi were expected to have spells such as lightning, but never so many all at once and all so completely controlled as to hit tiny, magical creatures that outsped an arrow’s trajectory ten times. Maybe Lars could do that, Herkam thought. Uranus certainly could. But to see such a spell under the guidance of an apprentice, who had undergone backlash for Uranus’s sake, made the armsmaster question his innermost beliefs. It was obvious the day of alignment approached.
  Gust shuddered, releasing the flow of air that had kept the sound blessedly away from his ears, and waited for a second to recover his breath. No need for singing any more, he thought flippantly, to prolong the awareness of just what had happened before him. Thank the Patron he’d allowed the boy to join their party of three on this crusade. Reluctantly, he released the deepsong, the sounds of life and emotion, to return to the mundane world of reality. No need to sing. Sweat matted his hair to his forehead, and the Prince annoyedly shoved it from out of his eyes. Looking at the exposed campsite, Gust knew nothing could have survived. A patch of utterly black, charred land lay exposed in the midst of thriving greenery. A land blistered by heat into some warped monstrosity that no word had ever been able to describe. Whatever people who’d been the brunt of such flames would have long since evaporated. Even their bones could not have survived the power of Venus. But since there was nothing left to do, no hope left anyway, Gust stood and made his way to the site. The heat of the still frying area was far too unbearable for human flesh, so Gust had to take the time to craft yet another spell, calling the arctic winds of the north to surround and sink into the land crying out in agony. For a few minutes Gust waited. Before any other actions could be performed, Laura had picked her way carefully across the ground to the Prince’s side. So stealthily done, her black-swathed form wasn’t detected within the blackened land until she touched Gust’s arm. Gust jumped, then looked at the blistered, half-cooked image of utter loveliness. “Your hair.” Was the first thing the stunned bard could choke out.
  “Burned, like the rest of me. But not half as bad as Gale. If I had been faster. . .”
  “She’s dead then?” He murmured through ashen lips. Despite the evident pain it caused the ninja, as the motion split open flesh trying to reknit itself and caused a small trickle of blood to run down her chin, Laura smiled. “You can thank me when you see her, if you still think it worth it.” Laura didn’t wait for a reply, easily picking her way across the scorched campsite back to the small bubble of life Hydrosphere had unintentionally preserved. Tired and lacking the will he’d given to his many spells, Gust almost didn’t even follow. But then Vistan was by his side, green eyes almost back to that of a normal human’s, and he took his lord by the arm. Together, supporting one another, the two remaining wind mages made their way to the island of green amidst a sea of death. Vistan, with chilling calmness, made no sound, the cowl of his hood obscuring any reaction but a widening of the eyes. Gust, drained in more ways than one, did little better. Laura almost looked disappointed at the lack of theatrics, but was the first to get back to business. “Do any of you have any more water? Anything you brought with you?” Vistan tenderly brushed flakes of dead skin from off Gale’s face, his voice quavered. “No.” Gust nodded in mutual negation. Laura looked down at her closest friend’s unconscious form with purpose, schemes flashing through the deep pools of her eyes. “Well, she’s stable at the least. I think we can move her. If there are any more Venusians, we might as well lay down and die now if we can’t get out of here, fast.
  “Wait a second!” Gust exclaimed. “You’re speaking my language! How did you learn. . ?” Three heads slowly turned towards a sixteen year old boy. Vistan didn’t seem to notice, still bowed over Gale’s body.
  “You promised you would be able to craft such a spell before you came, didn’t you? Well here you go, problem solved, promise kept. I’m damn glad, too. There’s no way Gale’s going to be in a position to translate anytime soon.” Her business-like tone switched to that of tender, gentle caring. “Vistan? We have to go now, can you get the horses and let Herkam hold her now?” Two tears fell to Gale’s face, and sizzled. “Damn horses.” He muttered through a tight throat. But he stood, telling something about a kid whose spirit was sacrificed just moments before, that would have drained any other spellcaster from any ability to function under such pressure for days. Herkam gathered the fragile girl in his arms, the only hope for the lives of two continents, and wrapped soaked blankets around her as Vistan brought the Princess’s horse beside him. “I’ll ride with her.” Laura said in a voice that brooked no arguing. “Where do we go?” Gust asked.
  “Civilization is our only hope. Somewhere that holds the blessed healing of the Great Lakes. The nearest city would be Dayton. We just have to keep going west until we hit a road.”
  “But what about the spy?” Herkam interceded.
  “What about it? If you really think that’s more important go ahead. But I for one have a duty to my kingdom to see that Princess Gale lives.” From beneath a mask of pain, the singed assassin dared the armsmaster to challenge her again. Herkam didn’t take it. Gracefully mounting his stallion, once again towering over Laura, he gestured like a nobleman to his lady for her to lead the way. Gust and Vistan took up the rear, and a silent, contemplative old man and a ball of water snugged their way inbetween. “I tried to play, but there was no mind to challenge. This is getting vexing. What if I lose my edge?” No one seemed very sympathetic for the old man, which upset him all the more. Whispering to the haggard looking orb alongside him, Fisher almost leaned off his horse trying to be conspiratorial, “What, did I miss something?”

Chapter 7. The Birth of Xe-har
  Ricardo lay in his bed, but he did not sleep. A wall had been devoted to the constant surveillance of the enemy royalty. They seemed to be engaged in a quest that countless treasure-hunters and would-be adventurers had tried since the beginning of time, and it was almost comical to see such dignified peoples becoming this desperate. Even so, it posed as a risk, however slight, to a war that otherwise would be predestined towards victory. In answer, his mages had set up this, for lack of a better word. A gathering of energy distorted into consciousness and the need to serve, which his court mage had simply deemed a spirit. And so this spirit silently watched and followed, always out of sight and always providing him sight. The Flame Falcons he had sent had sometime earlier that day struck, as the dead body of the princess attested to. He only wished he had been here when it had happened. But ruling, as he was learning, was a full-time occupation. There was little more to the day than waking, dressing, eating, sleeping, passing judgments and making orders. He spared little time watching his enemy’s progress, and even the time he was using now was borrowed from his period of rest. Well, it seemed now that all was in good order, but Ricardo could not bring himself to believe it was that easy. He had heard of the powers of healing the Kingdom of Water held. Was he so sure that death itself couldn’t be balked? It would be a good idea to keep the spirit on the job, just in case. Also, it seemed strange that they’d attribute so little respect to their dead princess, to leave her open to the elements. Unless their customs differed on this, you at least would cover her up if not bury her. Of course, they could be taking her to a more formal ceremony, but the suspicion that afflicted all of the Kingdom of Fire’s people nagged at him that all was not as it seems. He yawned, watching the firelit encampment with less and less attention. He would have to set up a spy network for such work. Spirits lacked the intelligence to gather intelligence. Smiling at his witticism, the
King of Fire went to sleep.
  Another member of the court of that Kingdom, however, had just awakened. Lastair had no trouble seeing his way in the night, and his form suited the darkness far better for fading into the shadows. He had been making good time, and was now well into enemy territory. Not that he feared they would detect him. Magic made many strange figures stalk the days and nights, and caused considerable trouble for travelers or newly raised settlements. An anomaly such as himself would in fact be taken for more natural than a single human found in the wilderness. Inky black eyes took in the scene around him, noting the wyvern above, and Lastair smiled. Obviously a phantasm born of concentrated energy, a Neptunian that dominated the skies and fed on the birds of earth. It was past time he made his contribution to Mother Nature anyway, Lastair reasoned, palming a dagger. A signature black glass bead served as its pommel, and its hollow tip promised poison. Lastair spread his leathery wings and took flight. Jet black upon black, his dive was as silent as a baby’s breath, and the wyvern had only a moment to gurgle a choked cry before plummeting to the earth, dissipating back into water before it ever reached the ground. Lastair had never ceased to wonder why poison would work on a being comprised solely of magic, but did not worry about it. The same reason they ate food, he supposed. They were created by magic, but they lived by the laws of nature till the moment they died. Only Elementals had enough energy to defy those laws continuously, the rest only had enough energy to defy them once. Looking disappointedly at his dagger now falling on its own to the ground, he longed for the thrill of actually killing something, and seeing the dead body spasm and gush out blood and be mourned. The surreal existence of these creatures could not be killed, simply returned to its original state of matter, and afterwards he could not help but feel a certain futility to it all. But enough of that, it was time to travel on to-- His eyes caught the shadow of another black creature in flight, and immediately he fell into a dive to avoid whatever possible projectile the thing could have fired at him. He had no idea how such a thing could have gotten so close without his noticing, and was furious at himself for the slacking of alertness. Such things got a person in his field killed. Breaking his dive, he came back up behind the creature and took a dagger into each of his hands. The shadow as gracefully turned and appraised Lastair. The Venusian felt a tinge of deja vu, as if he should know the apparition before him. Deciding to err on the side of mercy, Lastair called out to it. “If you can speak, do it now before I cut your tongue out.” It was as much a snarl of challenge as regular speech. To his surprise, the answer was in his language: “Ahh, Xe-har, I see that you are about your cheerful self tonight. I’ll tell you it took me quite some time to find you. Is it that you have truly deserted his majesty’s service?”
  Suddenly it all snapped into focus. He had of course run an entire organization of messengers, spies, assassins and such that fulfilled King Bernardo’s orders. Many of which were of his own race. “Of course not. I have deemed to take personal action and if I can I will return as soon as feasible. You can tell the King--”
  “But that is why I’m here!” The Venusian clearly looked disturbed, possibly even afraid. “They elected me to impart the news--The King is dead. It is our collective belief that he was assassinated, but we don’t dare challenge Ricardo. No one would believe people of our station.”
  Except for the occasional strong flap of wings, Xe-har remained silent. He found that he could not speak. His mind had frozen, shattered only by his comrade’s parting words. “We are still at your service, master, if it ever comes to that. We all loved our former lord.” Thinking to try some sort of other consolation, the Venusian bit back his words looking upon the other’s visage, and silently made his leave. When he had passed far from sight, a shriek that woke the land and sent those awake quivering in terror filled the night. It seemed to go on for an eternity, never pausing for breath or losing strength, and he could not help but wince not in pain, but in sympathy. The cold-blooded assassin faded into the night, and was gone.
  The following day of the attack, exactly two people woke in their respective tents. Of the rest, one never slept, three were mages, and a fourth was lucky to still be breathing. Herkam emerged from his empty tent with annoyance, slitting his eyes from the spectacular sun and searching for his prince. He had hoped his exhaustive sword practice would for once send Gust to the ground for a night, but it seemed the mage had more vitality then he thought. One day, he pledged to himself, I will stage a competition with that man, and he will be the first to close his eyes. But for now, he had to find him. It was not such a hard thing, as Gust sat conversing with Fisher over a long-dead fire.
  “How nice it is,” Herkam spoke resignedly, “that I need never post watch with you people about. Don’t you ever get tired?”
  Gust looked startled at the armsmaster, “Morning already?” he asked, rubbing a sore arm that still hadn’t stopped throbbing since last practice. Looking at his trainer now, it reminded him of all the pain that man had incurred upon him the preceding day. Fisher looked up at the morning sky, and spoke of the passing of time, presently getting into a furious debate with himself if time was thus proven to be a construct of human thought and thus pervertable based upon one’s sense of it, or if it existed as a true dimension of reality and the mind’s misperception of it was only a sign of the basic insanity of all intelligent creatures.
  The two from the Kingdom of Wind decided to make no comment, and left the graybearded loon to himself. “Vistan?” Gust asked. Herkam just shook his head, coming to Laura’s tent and scratching at it.
  “Wait.” Laura called out with a tinge of anxiety that they wouldn’t. Standing next to each other with nothing to do, they took in the scene around them with a wonder of discovery. “A pretty land.” Gust stated authoritatively, as if it were the final diagnosis of a long, heated debate. Herkam could not help but agree. The Kingdom of Wind was not that thoroughly different as the other two were from Water, but the sheer scope of it all was enough to awe the armsmaster. To think of the entire continent ravaged and put to the sword was almost as bad as the threat to his homeland.
  “Why is Fire killing everyone? Are they really that hateful? Couldn’t they just conquer it, and gain all of the riches and loyalty that their new lands would give?” Herkam tried to fill the niche of time left open to them.
  “Oh I’m sure they’d like to.” Gust answered good-naturedly. “But they must ascribe to a higher loyalty--to their Goddess. A prophecy tells that in the end, there will only be one element remaining. Our Patrons, as you know, only exist as long as they have a people. So every last person in the Kingdom of Water must be destroyed to expunge the mark of Neptune. The same goes for the Kingdom of Wind.” And again the words of his father raced through his head, “or else we all die!”
  “Gods but what a horrible slaughter. I can’t even imagine it. Enough people to pave a road with skulls from the Kingdom of Earth to the Atlantic. . .”
  “We must not let it happen.” Gust stated with utter determination. To a bard, the value of life and joy and prosperity grew exponentially. The beauty of the deepsong thrived on such things. Allowing the inner music to engulf him, he began to orchestrate a song out of fears and woes to impart on a deeper communication the sheer horror of such a thing upon his friend’s mind. But he was broken from his revelry as Laura emerged from her tent, looking annoyed that the two had caught her unprepared. “Herkam, could you get Gale ready? Where’s Vistan?”
  Gust looked about in his best attempt to appease what still had to be the most beautiful girl in all existence, then shrugged in helplessness. “I could use magic. . .” He ventured.
  “No need, there he is.” Laura’s sharp eyes spotted the lad walking towards camp, still deep in thought and not noticing the breaking of camp before him. “He looks tired.” She mentioned concernedly. Everyone, even that floating ball of water, still felt gratitude enough for his actions that such a thing would concern her. Gust flashed with envy, for hadn’t he been just about to save the day himself? If not for this unwelcome apprentice the newfound caring would have been his, and the Princess would wake knowing he had saved her life. Such a thing was not merely personal, the fate of millions hinged on their love. But he let it all lie, knowing that whatever he said would be interpreted as petty jealousy, and he was not so sure that it wasn’t. Oh, not jealous of Laura looking at the boy with affection, he hoped he was beyond such things. It was the same jealousy he had over Herkam’s swordplay, or Laura’s grace. It was the magic. Vistan had learned more in the course of two years than Gust had in all his life, and if the prophecies held true then he would be the greatest magi in recorded history. Again, he was outmatched.
  In the light of my companions, how could anyone admire me?
It was a disturbing question, but not one to be answered, and so he ignored it and turned his attention rather to mounting his horse. Annoyingly, the task was over before he had begun it, and his mind was left free to roam once more. Uranus took mercy on him, however, and he was interrupted: “Gust? The scouts?”
  “Eh? Oh.” She was of course referring to the birds that he had persuaded to serve their cause in the simple act of reaching civilization. Projecting his mind outwards, he tried to scent their auras, find them in the vast sea of life, snowflakes in a ceaseless blizzard. . . . . “Come along then.” Gust guided his horse and the rest of his company fell in behind him, Gale’s litter attended by her elemental in the middle. How strange. They follow me not as Prince, but as Woodsman. He wondered if such a thing should bring him pride. After all, he was accomplishing something based on skill and being respected for it, a far grander thing than being served merely on the basis of his title. On the other hand, being a woodsman amidst an armsmaster, a wizard, a ninja, an elemental, and a wiseman was hardly something to be proud of. Gloom filled his vision; which was all for the better really as it stopped his tears from filling them instead.

  A fever of unadulterated rage consumed Xe-har. Anger so hot he burned in it. A self-loathing so strong he huddled in pain from it. He had just killed the greatest man on Earth, in a position that gave him the throne of the world. The glory of such a thing, the impossible spans Venusians could have reached, were now all shattered in a single terrible bout of human greed and Venusian pride. Was this not what Bernardo had warned of? Mother! What have I done? He had just laid waste to the future as if the bloody dagger were his own. Negligence beyond the point of criminal, to some place humanity had never found a word to describe, so sheer was his stupidity. He whimpered. The sound tore his throat in pain, and he could imagine the tender flesh breaking and bleeding, filling his lungs with blood and choking him to death as he lay like the dog he was for the Kingdom of Water to gloat over as another victory. But such a fate was far too good for him, and so he knew it would not happen. Cries for vengeance crashed through his skull with jarring force, drowning out even his cries of sorrow, and the urge seized him to make all haste back to his kingdom and slay the traitor who wore the true king’s crown. The thought of such a thing being tainted by the damned devil twisted his gut. It would be a challenge, and he would die afterwards most assuredly, but he did not doubt that it could be done. But however many he killed, he could never raise Bernardo back from the grave. It would only place progressively stupider bastards on the throne, and might possibly bring about the downfall of the entire kingdom--and thus his own death and the death of the Goddess of Love, his creator. It would be senseless to return as an angel of death. What then, proceed? End what he had begun, helping the very one he hated most? He had paid for this chance with the world, the best way he could honour him would be to finish it. But for an assassin, he simply could not bring himself to value honour over vengeance. It wasn’t in his nature. Which left. . .what? He seemed to have talked his way out of killing anyone, which was definitely not the course of action he wished. After this, someone had to die, it was a fact of life. It was the only reaction he had ever known towards anything.
  He could not destroy his element, nor could he aid the destruction of Water, but was there any shade of gray? Any compromise? And then it came to him. A vengeance stronger than death ever could bring. Utter complete desecration and dishonour in such a way that the Kingdom of Fire would hate the betrayer during life and after his death for all of time. He could think of no greater punishment within mortal infliction. And after the poison of their hatred had its way with him, why then and only then will I offer him his escape, and I shall drag his carcass through the streets as the people spit on it and kick it until we reach his pyre, and then I shall throw each individual body part into the flames as we dissect him and wear his innards like jewelry draped around our necks under the overwhelming cheer of the masses. . . . It was a scene no less grisly than what he’d seen before, it almost seemed merciful when compared to the tortures that could be inflicted. But public revulsion conveniently allowed him to live after he killed the King, and torture would possibly bring about pity and acknowledged that the man was worth torturing. If a mad dog wanders through town, you do not bind it and torture it to death, you shoot it and leave it in the dusty street to roll and kick until it gave way and you left it to the garbage men to throw out, giving it no further attention. Torture, in its own way, was an honour he was unwilling to give to his nemesis.
  How could one bring about such hatred? He called upon history. Mussolini had been so reviled, not for any of his evil deeds, but simply for losing the war. Had he made glorious conquest and led his nation to greatness, no one would care how it came about. But he had lost thousands and for nothing, given them empty promises and betrayed them. Now here was another world war, but this time the war was almost in the bag. Only supreme idiocy could cost the Kingdom of Fire the war, who both outnumbered and out qualified their enemy. They had promised a war that would not cost a single soldier’s life. Of course, the people knew that to be an exaggeration, and would allow thousands of deaths as the necessary cost. But to lose the war with horrible losses and no gain? And pin it all on this usurper’s stupidity, blame him for the war gone rotten, and promise deliverance if only he were to be removed. . . If he could strike a deal with the Kingdom of Water, that they would lose a few battles and give up their ‘attack’ on the Kingdom of Fire after repulsing their foe with his help against some general he would display as a true leader of men and the Kingdom’s only hope. . . It was complex, maybe even a long shot, but it was far sweeter than killing the traitor and dying for it. And if it did not seem possible, then he could call it off and go back to plan one. There was time. Xe-har rose to his feet, kicking at some nearby hopeful scavenger. He hissed in concentration, his eyes turning into slits of jet black. There was only one conceivable way that the Kingdom of Water would prevail: Prismi. He had known of that danger from the first and was prepared to end it forever, but now. . . He was determined to join it.

  Before his eyes, a wave materialized and swept across the land, tearing undergrowth from the soil and seeming to accelerate. With the strength of a brick wall, it hurled itself against the enemy and, its job done, vanished. The sea of rats before them broke, but soon the breach was filled in by still further rats, and it now seemed as if no damage had been done at all. Gust’s horse pranced nervously, and it took him a moment to quell it. Neptune’s legions emitted a chittering that was scaring him plenty, so it was a wonder the horses hadn’t bolted already. Trying to force it all out of his head, he summoned a blackness in his mind that would allow him to cast. In a moment, he found peace and his senses receded.
  Umbolla signore, lasciareniente passaro!” Gust shouted, the rush of magic passing through him and taking something indefinable with it. He saw no change, but in a moment all sound vanished, the chittering that had broken him into a cold sweat and seemed to fill his skull seemed only the louder in its absence. Herkam had his blade out, but it hardly seemed a weapon in the face of so many. He looked surprisingly towards his prince, and Gust made a ghost of a smile in acknowledgment. Laura warily made her way towards the two: “What now?”
  The Prince sighed, for the moment trying to recapture both breath and speech. “That should--hold them. . .for now.” He took a deep breath, and stood up to meet her lavender pools that hardly befit the word ‘eyes’. “But the best of my magic can not last forever, and they are magic themselves. I don’t know if they can counterspell, but they can surely pollute my element with their own, and gnaw a hole through.” Outside, a surreal sight of an ice shower played havoc with the rat hordes, the awaited sounds of screams and shattering impacts never reaching them. Hydrosphere had not ceased the fight at all. In a moment, the other two males joined the first two. Vistan stood dismounted and eyed his horse nervously. With everyone towering above him, he looked a comical sight. “What?” He demanded of all the averted glances.
  “Nothing.” Laura said gravely. Even Herkam wore a small smile, had anyone been watching him to notice. Vistan drew back his hood, piercing his companions with deep emerald daggers. “Laugh all you want! You think I could’ve kept on my horse with that squealing going on? Besides, we don’t have time for this. Can’t one of you do something?” The barrage of icicles had not let up, deep gray storm clouds hinted of a monumental storm about to break. So far, the wall of air hadn’t let as much as a rain drop through. Laura gave a sweep of her arm to bring the boy’s attention to it all. It was made with the grace of a, well, an elf. Herkam muttered something to his prince, but he only shook his head. The rats, with fanatical hunger, still had not retreated from the wrath of the storm, piling up their weight against the invisible barrier they could not understand nor take account of. Vistan watched as one rat was pierced by falling ice, and gave one convulsion before dissipating into pure, simple water. The muddy pool before him took on a whole new, gruesome meaning. He felt like throwing up. Surely some of that at least was just the rain. . .
  “Vistan?” Fisher put a hand on his arm, bringing him back from his dizzy malaise. He clutched his staff for support, and shrugged away any efforts to help. “No, no, I’m all right. Here, let me try something.” In a moment he allowed his mind to wander, eternally grateful for the silence he needed to remember what was to him a very complex spell.
  Stornareloro famesopra si. Cannibales, tuto!” The Wind Mage’s staff grew to shine a bright green, focusing and channeling the magic of Uranus in lieu of the drain that would occur if the element swept through his body. In the blaze of green flames, cloaked in green, two orbs still outshone them all with their fierce intensity. Then, the spell was released, and the staff only shone as an afterimage in the eyes of the beholders. No spectacular vortex arose to destroy their enemy, and Laura looked confusedly at him. It had seemed quite a spell at the time. Gust, knowing the language of magic, hastened to explain. “He’s trying to control their minds. Well, not control them as much as turn them. Take a drive that was already there, and bend it like a thick wire to point in the direction he wishes. The drive being, naturally, their wish to eat us.”
  “Cannibals. . .” Fisher whistled, quite impressed as the majority of the rats leaped and bit at each other, even amidst the horrible silent storm that struck them down. As the fight spread throughout the entire mass, a small lake was forming around their bubble, and now some of it was trickling through. Herkam looked at it with distaste, sword still drawn. Vistan had a quite different reaction. He turned away just in time so that Laura could not see, and then spewed last nights dinner and today’s breakfast all over the ground. So incredibly foul was the taste in his mouth that he couldn’t stop gagging, trying to get everything out. Someone shoved a canteen in his face, and he tried to mutter a thanks as he rinsed out his mouth, the sheer memory of the stench enough to keep him spitting far after it was all gone anyway. Focusing his eyes, hoping for all the Gods that it had not been Laura who had witnessed it all, he saw a small, flitting globe of water hover concernedly in front of him. How strange. He thought, looking deeply into the translucent depths of Hydrosphere. It must not understand a single word we say, until suddenly one of us opens up with a spell and he wonders why whenever we address him we seem to only make strange commands. He must think back so hard to us, and wonder why we are so rude to ignore his questions. And all the while, we don’t even realize he’s speaking to us, and go on shouting at him strange verses he is probably trying to piece together into some meaningful sentence even now. It was enough to make him laugh, his whole body shaking, and he wondered if he was not going slightly mad. Well why not? The only father, companion, brother, what have you lay even now in his deathbed, and the only girl he’d ever cared for lay much the same. Everything he touched was falling into a coma. The aberration from the normal quote that still held true was enough to put him into a whole new spurt of laughter, and he wondered if he would even be able to keep standing. He could feel the mud clinging to his boots. He didn’t know how on earth he would be able to clean his robes if he should fall. Wizard enough to call the lightning, he laughed, but when it comes to cleaning his clothes--! Before he really did fall, a firm hand was on his shoulder and in a moment he had been lifted from his feet. He thought of all the strange looks he would be receiving the moment he regained control, and decided it was far for the better to keep his eyes closed and avoid such an encounter. He scrabbled through his mind for the calm that he wore like a second layer around him, that had been banished to the orbit of his patron since the moment he saw that rat convulsing. . . .Has someone cast a spell on me? He cried desperately. But another voice, a far saner voice, told him that he was just broken from the stress, the product of far too great a demand. The emotional strength that had allowed him to forge on had been sacrificed to his magic, and would return in time. Backlash, though defeated, was still causing havoc in his mind, and would not give way so abruptly. He could feel the cursed familiar leather of his saddle, but in a moment he couldn’t feel a thing. A calm blackness engulfed him, and he slept.
  “By Neptune! Is he all right?” Laura shivered in recollection of the outbreak. The other day he had seemed so strong and level, and now she saw before her only a small boy with the weight of the entire world upon his shoulders. A motherly burst of compassion went through her, but she shouted it down. She was hardly much older than him, and any such action would be seen in an entirely different light by him. She couldn’t afford to touch anyone. The loss of Gale had left her an utter loneliness inside her, for how could she talk of anything to any of these men? Oh it was nothing demeaning of them, as she had not met a man who didn’t fail to be mesmerized by her, but it still left the simple fact that everyone here would do nothing but gaze wistfully at her body. All the more reason to get her healed, she reaffirmed herself. Looking now annoyedly at the raging storm that kept them from moving. Remembering that she had asked a question, and had not in the slightest heard the answer, she put in, “What?”
  A slight look of quickly covered up exasperation went past Herkam’s face. “He’s fine. He just needs to sleep. People become unhealthy when they don’t look after their basic bodily needs.” Herkam had turned to look pointedly at his Lord, who pretended not to notice.
  “Damn it all.” Gust swore, “somebody tell that stupid ball that the battle’s over, and he can quit pouring the frozen Adriatic on our heads. I don’t know how much longer I can protect us.” Indeed cold winds and seeping waters had already found their way inside, only the roof of the bubble holding firm. But of course, with Gale unavailable, no one could tell Hydrosphere anything. In the cold gloomy rain, Laura pulled her blanket around her body and shivered. That’s twice. She lamented angrily. How many more times on this damned adventure will I be drenched to the bone by my own party? The question, addressed to no one, remained unanswered.

Chapter 8. When Assassins Collide. . .
  Fisher had been snoring loudly atop his horse for quite some time. Gust had talked with the horses already, and they assured him no one would fall. The assurance had held true now for three people not riding under their own power. The other three dutifully plodded after their birds towards Dayton. As if on cue, Herkam called out from the front of the progression, “I can see the city!” Gust sighed and relaxed on his horse. In the course of a few hours, they would have beds to sleep on and others to attend to their horses and for the first time a hope of recovering.
  “When we reach, do you think they’ll be waiting for us?” Gust asked worriedly. He didn’t feel the least bit ready to craft a spell, and the city would make it that much harder to channel. Nor was the deepsong as strong in such a mundane establishment, and that was something he didn’t especially want to use, either. The Valley had never taught him so that he could use their skills in battle. A Bard was meant to bring beauty and truth to the populace, not corrupt their minds. . . It is to save my people, and for that one must use everything at his disposal. Anything less and I will have killed them all with my own hands. Herkam reviewed his companions, and kept a stony silence. Laura looked tired. Gust wondered how many years it had taken to grow her hair out that long. But to agonize over such a petty thing, when only through her courage did this mission still have the remotest chance of success, was downright stupid. Truly, the majority of his companions had already risked death, and they hadn’t even reached the first key. Uranus knows reaching Spa had never been an easy venture. If they are waiting, then I don’t think we will make it. It was a glum thought, especially since supposedly they were in the middle of their own homeland and as safe as they ever would be. By Uranus, the Neptunians were the weakest magical creations. What happens when they reached the Jovians, and the armies of Earth? He didn’t want to think about it. It was bad enough just getting through friendly territory. If only Lars were here. With Lars by their side, Gust would not hesitate to march on the heart of Fire. Truly it was yet undecided if Venus’s assault on the Cherry Blossom had actually failed. But Lars was not here, and so instead he loosened his sword by his side, and rode much like the armsmaster by his side into the great Kingdom of Water. At the gates, festive flowers and ribbons had been tied, and it seemed the city was still recovering from the cheer of its people. Everywhere laid signs of some great celebration. It was the last thing the companions had expected. Hawkers and Bakers shouted out their goods, and the main roads were crowded with people. Of course, such a thing never bothered them, for wherever they went, the collective crowd gaped and grew silent, making way for the vision of perfection riding before them. Traveling with Laura did have its advantages. He wondered if he had acted like this when he first saw her, too. He wondered why he didn’t do that anymore. Herkam looked warily for any sign of the enemy, but it seemed all the people had only gay and admiring faces. The reprieve was almost too good to be true.
  “Let’s find an inn and get out of this.” Laura said, somewhat uncomfortably. After all, hundreds of people, men, women, and children, all had gathered their collective attention to gaze upon her blistered, reddened visage. It was enough to unsettle even her.
  “Sure. Does someone have Gale? Gods but here we are in the middle of a city and no one is riding beside her!” Gust promptly rode back towards the three sleeping fellows. It really wasn’t any louder than in the wild, maybe even quieter, what with Laura riding amongst them. Herkam and Laura exchanged a glance, then kept up their pace. For the moment, the two nobles were alone. One of course was quite incapable of speech, but how debilitating could that be? All they did was argue anyway. Herkam nodded towards a respectful looking sign titled “The Piper’s Hearth”. “Once we get settled in, would you look for an herbalist or what have you? You’re the one who insisted on this, after all.” Laura noticed the many decorated wreaths hanging in the windows and on the door. “I will have to ask these people what is going on.” The idea of speaking English felt strange. As if that was now her foreign tongue. It scared her, that she might someday forget her native tongue in this company. For the moment, though, she was the only one who could talk with anyone in this city.
  The inn was everything but dark and dreary, nor filled with drunken laughter and the sickening mockery of cheer such establishments sometimes boasted. In fact, it was a small, quiet business walking in and making their way to the front counter. They had plenty of money, but it turned out none was necessary. They had reservations. Laura looked quizzically at Herkam, who nodded, so she accepted the three rooms that were made for them and went back for the others. “What gives?” She asked, a slight toss of her head towards the desk to indicate the direction of her questioning.
  “Of the very few of us who were expected to have originally set off on this mission, we’d already prepared a route and made the necessary accommodations. It makes things much simpler, if people aren’t always making a fuss about the princess being here.” Laura chewed on her lip, flinching at the blow the other had not meant to give. We have to do this because of assassins. Because of people like me. “Well next time, tell me so I don’t look like such an idiot.” Herkam seemed about to tell her that the last thing she looked like was an idiot, but his discipline clamped down and he just nodded. A few horns and drums sounded spontaneously out in the streets, then disappeared in a burst of laughter. “There aren’t any holidays this time of the year.” Laura thought out loud. Then she shook her head as if to clear her head, and walked out to find something for Gale. Gust had with a little effort gotten Vistan up the stairs and into his bed. He stooped to gather up Fisher and was up the stairs again. Finally, he reached Gale and looked at the Armsmaster, who was studiously ignoring his prince and sharpening his sword. This would be the first time he ever touched her, Gust realized. It made him sad, that such a moment would be in such a situation. It almost made him back away from her. Instead he sunk to the floor beside her, and gingerly took up her hand. Her eyes were closed. Did he even know what color they were? By Uranus, he had never even looked into her eyes. He had never even wanted to. It made him suddenly weary to the bone. As if all the sleep he should’ve gotten during the entire week only now came together to protest to his mind. It would be so wonderful to just lay down next to her, and pretend. . .
  Laura took a long, deep breath in appreciation. She was alone for the first time in too long. She could go to the village square and listen to the music that was still playing, as if in afterthought. Or she could find some new clothes and wash out the ones she had. Civilization offered so much she need not even go back to the Piper. But of course she had to, at least once, and until she did that this sense of freedom was just an illusion. She began to wander the streets aimlessly, and wherever she went a moment of silence followed, and people tried to preserve the moment for as long as possible. To her surprise, one person in the crowd did not make way for her. In fact, he seemed to be waiting for her. After a few yards closer, she had to admit that he was, and she stopped in front of him. Something inside her began to set off alarms. It was nothing obvious, but her instincts told her that there was more to him than met the eye.
  “Hola senorita, yo necesitar para hablar con su lords.”  
  Laura took it all well in stride. Here in the heart of the Kingdom of Water, why of course there would be people who spoke Spanish. Of the one word she did understand, it gave a very bad idea of what she saw before her. The way he held himself, it reminded her of her. He was asking about her lord. . . “Can you speak English?” He nodded no. What on Earth was she supposed to do with him? Likely Vistan could cast a translation, but then if he were an assassin he’d know where Gust and Gale were. She smiled in apology, and then pointed to where he was and lifted a hand to show that he should stay there. Then she turned around and walked away, making sure he didn’t follow. A crowd of jubilant children ran past her, the only ones not transfixed by her passage, crying out some unfamiliar name in praise. She would’ve stopped them, but now she had something more important to do. All she had to do was retrieve Vistan and bring him back with her, and then they could decide what to do from there. She wondered if Vistan was in any fit condition for casting anything, but what choice did she have? She wondered again about how marvelous it must have been in the past, when everyone spoke English. But that was then, and at least now there was some way to break through these barriers. No sense dwelling on it.
  Presently she found herself at the front of the Piper’s Hearth, and she wearily pushed her way in. She had been riding all day, and it wasn’t over yet. The only person left in the common room was the armsmaster. “What gives?” She indicated the empty inn with a sweep of her arm.
  “Everyone fell asleep. It was a nice scene a bit back. . . but anyway where’s the water?” Herkam already radiated disapproval, had already decided she hadn’t even fulfilled that simple task. Even now he was probably wondering why she was even on this mission. . .
  Laura stopped herself. If that’s what he wanted to think, fine. The only person he seemed not to disapprove of was Gust himself. Languidly finding her way to a chair opposite Herkam, she explained her strange encounter on the streets.
   “Do you think he’s still there?” Herkam asked boredly. Laura took a moment to actually consider it. “Yes. He seemed like he knew what he was doing. I think he knows about us. I mean, that we’re going to Spa.”
  “Great. A Spanish-speaking person who knows we’re going to Spa. Any guesses?” Herkam asked sarcastically. Laura sighed in answer. “Probably their backup plan in case their birds didn’t do the job. A thorough people, Fire.” Herkam stopped himself from banging the table in anger. “I told you we had to get rid of that thing! As long as its alive, they’ll know exactly where we are, when we’re asleep. . . We’re as good as dead.”
  “Yes well, I’m not going to assume everyone who speaks Spanish is instantly an assassin. I want to take Vistan over and see what he wants.”
  “Sure you’ll be safe?” Herkam asked carefully with a straight face.
  “Mostly I just wanted to be sure that Vistan can cast that translation spell again.”
  “Well don’t look at me. Ask him. Third door to the right, I think. And I doubt he’ll wake up when you knock on the door.” Laura regrettably rose, yawned, and then made her way up the stairs. The door was unlocked, so she slipped in and took in the surroundings. Vistan’s saddlebags had not been unpacked, and laid in a heap on the floor. Nearby, the boy slept on a blissful-looking bed. Not even his boots were off. For a moment she jealously watched the slumber, but then she went over to his bed and shook it.
  Thankfully, that was enough, and the boy opened his eyes. He was silent, still more in the dreamworld than hers, as he simply stared at the angel at his side. “Snap out of it.” She said good-naturedly. “You gave us a scare a bit back, are you all right?” Vistan let his breath out slowly, summoning the will enough to break the invisible threads of warmth and comfort his bed had surrounded him with. Then he abruptly sat up and nodded his head, giving a confused look at his surroundings. Laura understood the question and hastened to get to business, “This is the Piper’s Hearth. We’re in Dayton.”
  Vistan laughed, trying now to actually stand, abandoning his womb completely. Then he caught Laura’s glance. “No, no, I’m okay. It’s just, the Piper doesn’t have a home. He wanders through the forest, playing his pipe and such. So it’s an oxymoron, all very witty. But that wasn’t the funny part. The funny part was, I thought then that of course I was back in Bann and it had all been a bad dream, because the Piper is a German folktale. Well, I guess that wasn’t the funny part either. But then, you see, I wondered how the person who informed me that it was a bad dream was part of the dream. . . And I thought it was funny, that I still wasn’t willing to concede that it wasn’t a dream, and I was still trying to find some logical solution to it all. Does that make any sense to you?”
  Laura was still lost somewhere on what an oxymoron was, but she wasn’t willing to admit it. “It makes perfect sense. But right now we need your help. Are you up to a little more magic? We’ll let you go back to sleep right afterwards.”
  She talks to me like I’m a child. She spins promises and puts a smile on her face, and her voice is different than when she’s talking to other adults. He hadn’t meant to think that, but it struck him as odd that for all his skill that even now was being proven as vital, they still didn’t see him as an equal. A member of the party. It galled. Vistan took up his staff and nodded. “I feel okay. What spell, exactly, should I cast?”
  “You know how you made it so I can speak German? Well, you need to do it again, except this time the guy speaks Spanish. Does that change anything?”
  “No, not really. Where is he?”
  “Currently he’s sitting in the middle of the main street watching the sun set.” Vistan waited a moment longer for an explanation, but there seemed to be none forthcoming. So he sighed and stood up with the help of his staff. “ Lead on.”
*  *  *  *
  “About the other day.” Vistan encroached upon the silent travel they had so far made. Laura gave a small smile to him, reassuring that there was nothing to apologize for. But that wasn’t what had spurred Vistan, so nor did it stop him from going on. “Did I say anything strange?”
  Laura shook her head. “You were just laughing. I’m sorry we didn’t see it coming. I mean, I’m sure we could have settled in for a bit. . . Here, turn right.” They made their way through the dwindling crowds, the fire of the dying sun reflecting in Vistan’s eyes, and adorning the angel beside him with the beauty of the fading eve. The two of them together, speaking without notice an entirely different language than their fellows brought about many whispers and a growing number of silent followers.
  “No it’s my fault. I should’ve taken better care of myself. I’ve just never been able to take my eyes from the stars. Sometimes, when I try to study, I find myself instead gazing into the heavens, and I am at peace then. Like something out there can make me whole.” Laura remained silent, and gently brought them towards her destination. She thought of the years under the open sky, when the voices of birds and elves seemed to mingle always somewhere in the distance into a harmony beyond music. She would lay awake, then, and look towards the clouds she knew were there only in the darkness they provided. . . . and she would think of how horribly ugly and scratchy her voice was, and how dumpy and clumsy her body, and even the envelope of night could not calm her.
  Piercing green eyes had trained themselves upon her, and she tried to remember what had been said. “What?” Thought and speech seemed hard to exist simultaneously.
  “Nothing.” He said distressedly, and his head bowed to look at the floor beneath him, the only thing he was worthy of viewing any longer. But Laura could not spare time to cheer him, for they were here, and the man had waited all this time for them.
  Vistan stopped when she did, and looked up at the shadow before him. Cold worked its way across his body, and he shivered once to disperse the feeling. He waited a moment to empty his thoughts, and thought back to what he had done just a few days before. He hadn’t even thought much of the spell then, he knew only of its need and the greater need for an egress of the energy that sought to consume him. Had he even spoken the words allowed? He must have. But now it was hard to recall them. Laura looked askance at him for a moment, and he burned with shame at that single look. Why did they expect all of this from him? Hadn’t Gust been far longer under the tutelage of the Wind Mages? They didn’t want him; who they wanted was Lars, and Lars was no longer here.
  Lars wasn’t, but he was. He had, upon undertaking this journey, vowed to do all that was under his power for his Prince in their quest to reach Spa. He was fated to save his Kingdom from total annihilation; what, then, was a simple translation spell? Through his mind he wandered, finding those areas of memory that were still locked and hidden away, and unlocking them. He knew his subconscious could craft the spell, but he must reveal it to his knowing mind now, or fail a woman of such divinity that death would be more welcome. . .
  Lasciaregli parolaedi Fuoco passarein quellidi Vento!” No visible forces were invoked, but Laura was not worried. No one had noticed when the spell was cast on her either. She turned once more to the cloaked man and asked, “Verstehst du was Ich sprecke?”
  “I understand. The boy has done well, what with only the power of Uranus to call upon.” The voice was silken, and Vistan wondered if it was human.
  “So you come from Fire?” Laura challenged.
  “That I do, Kunoichi, but of Fire I am no more.” Laura closed her eyes a second, flinching at the title that fit her so. In Elven, it meant female ninja, and the word was spoken at black times and those slurred by it took grievous offense. For Elves detested killing, and most of all the ways of the assassin--a creature crafted only to kill and without mercy or justice. It was what she had become, using the very skills of the elves to go against their every teaching. She had betrayed them and their love for those many years, and this person knew it.
  Vistan looked a moment in care, but did not want to look weak before this strange man. “What do you mean?”
  “Haven’t you heard? The King of Fire is dead! His killer even now sits upon the throne, and him I do not serve. Nay, I wish only for his downfall, and for my hatred to follow him into the bowels of hell, so that I may only kill him once more!”
  “How do you know of us, and our goal? You must have been very high in the courts to know all this.” Laura had now recovered, and taken back her role of interrogation.
  “I was the King’s Shadow.” Laura took this well in stride, considering. Fire had been haunted many a time by her blade, but Water had now only four remaining nobles--because of him. Gale’s mother had been killed when she was ten. She had not met Gale until six years later, two years since her self-willed exile from the Elven lands. Posing as her handmaiden, Laura slept only a door apart from the Princess, and one night a frightened, quavering cry came through that door, “Laura? Laura, are you there?” She had opened the door, to see Gale in a miserable state. Her nightgown was sodden, her hair a mess, and her face was that of one who had cried until there were no longer any tears left to fall. Scared, and grief-stricken by her best friend’s state, she had asked what was wrong. “It was my Mother’s birthday today.” Gale said. “No one even noticed!” and with that she burst into tears once more, though it seemed an impossible feat. Laura held her for a moment, trying somehow to calm her. She was no older than Gale, how could she comfort her? In times like these, it was the Mother’s job to comfort her daughter. It was a bitter irony. Laura held her then, and said soothing words just so that her voice could be heard, and break through the layers of emotion that had enveloped Gale so. And slowly, the wracking sobs turned only to silent tremors, and then only to silence. Laura held her still, with Gale’s head pressed to her bosom, but now Gale pulled back, and blue eyes met violet pools that wished for something Laura could not give. So she dropped her head, and in despair sat again onto her royal bed, and spoke, “Did you know that in truth I had a sister, and two brothers? My parents tried to hide it from me. They put away all the paintings and toys and clothes of those two. I never knew of them at all. Until just eight years ago, when my brother and I sat under a tree, and he spoke of Emily. He had loved her perhaps even more than he should, and I had never known she even lived. She’s dead now. Along with a two-month old baby brother, his throat slit, when I was but an infant. I don’t even know what they look like. Don’t you think that’s strange, that I don’t know what they look like? I try to picture them sometimes, but I see them only as they would be in death. I have nightmares, Laura, horrible nightmares of my baby brother upon my ceiling, looking down, with a grin of death on his face and blood dripping from his throat onto my clothes. I can’t stop them. I beg and plead for him to go away, but he can’t understand me. He’s too young even to know what words are, so he grins. Maybe he wants to be fed, or clothed anew. He doesn’t even notice the red line of the knife, and the blood spilling out of him. By Neptune it haunts me still! My mother was killed only six years ago, and her they can not hide from me, because I watched her die from poison, laying there on her bed as healers brought to her all the purest waters of the Great Lakes. A poison that defies even the powers of the gods! Such is the heart of Fire, that an evil so great could be made.
  “O Neptune, why have you forsaken me? You bloodthirsty slaughterer of women! You saved us all at the first, but to my own you leave at Venus’s mercy, and they die. All of us are going to die!” Gale shrieked, anger and sorrow vying for dominance. “The Devil take thee, Neptune, for you shall not have me! I swear upon the Void, upon all that I love and all that I hold dear, I swear now that I will foil thee!” A shard of ice she had created from her hands, and now she held out her arm, and ran her blade across her wrist. Laura had sprung into action immediately, the speed of the elves in her leap, and caught the knife out of her hand. “Gale, no! By Neptune, you’re bleeding. Gale! What are you thinking!” But she had not heard a word, her last strength of will spent and undone, she sank into deepest misery and could not be woken. It was a horrible time, that year, as now people watched Gale at all times for any signs of her taking her own life. She had no privacy, even in her bath, and daily she would cry. At the end of it, though, it was as if a miracle took place, and the Princess was again at peace. In fact, she had become playful and full of joy, laughing many a-time at the slightest of jokes.
  Laura understood now that Hydrosphere had been that miracle, and this person here was the reason why it was needed. All this she took in stride, and responded only seconds later to his answer. “You are Lastair, then.”
  “No.” He answered, with even greater solemnity. “That name I think I shall never wear again. I am Xe-har, a Draconian of the Khy-Ithil clan, and I wish to join your party. I wish to reach Spa, and bring Prismi into this world.” She was damned if she would ever have to look upon this killer again.
  “Go now, whoever you are, and never lay eyes upon us again. We’d sooner join the Devil on our journey to the Void!” She spat upon him.
  “Laura!” Vistan cried, astonished. Both those words he’d heard only once before, and never in the same sentence. It hurt horribly for one so beautiful to speak them.
  “Shut up, Vistan!”
  “You can’t just decide for the entire party--” Xe-har complained.
  “Not another word or I butcher you where you stand! You think you’re better than me?” A fire lit in sable eyes, but Xe-har quelled it, for a much greater enemy must first be slain. Also, she had a strange look about her that made him fear. He opened his mouth to make some final comment, closed it with a hiss, and vanished. It was as if the night had opened for him, and closed behind him, leaving no trace of his passage. Vistan looked in astonishment at his companion, and she glared back. The glare kept him silent the entire way back to the Piper’s Hearth.

Chapter Nine. Rising From the Void.
  A globe of spinning water appeared in a great burst of cloud and mist, spraying the room and one unimpressed old man in the process. Hydrosphere teetered for a moment between states of matter, and then sank slowly to the floor. Fisher watched it for a moment, thinking. “Of course! My poor dear, in a city as large as this, it’s a marvel you can even support yourself.”
  Hydrosphere glumly relaxed his form and started to spread across the room. “Everything requires energy, Orb; not human, beast, phantasm, spirit, or elemental can avoid that law of nature. Or can we? Need an elemental follow the laws of nature, when it in itself is a defiance of that very law? Tell me, Hydrosphere, how is that you came to be? I remember the Archmage talking about your type once. But I suppose you can’t answer me. That is a sad thing, really. Oh not especially because of you, you’re just a harmless little thing, I’m thinking of the Elementals of Earth. Asia risked quite a bundle on that, believing they could master a magic so strong as Jupiter. Not one elemental could be killed, so the mages of earth formed prisons and barriers, and there they lay docile. But what happens if the two planets align, and the magic of Earth is given even greater force? The principal part of the captivity of any elemental you see, is putting it in the center of your biggest city and surrounding it with people and dirt and not letting one bit of uncultivated, unpolluted earth nearby. What little magic that lands upon the city can only keep the elemental alive. It is as weak as a newborn babe. I don’t suppose it is that bad for you, though?” Hydrosphere came sharply together on that. “No, I didn’t think so. I wish we had more time for your type, though. Well, I guess I can only do so much, eh?” Fisher laughed a bit at that, reminiscently rubbing the soft curves of a polished ivory chess piece.

  Laura and Vistan, a study in cold silence, entered the inn in that order well into the night. Herkam looked vaguely relieved, but did not say anything to break the ice. At least they hadn’t been so stupid as to invite the assassin to their very doorstep. Laura yawned and made her way to Gale’s room with a graceful, sprightly step, saying not a word to any of them. “No healer?” Herkam asked rhetorically. Vistan set his head upon the rough wooden table, and it felt blessedly comfortable. The glow of oil lamps shone in dazzling patterns within sleepy green eyes. “I don’t want to wake up tomorrow. Not until we have to leave. And I don’t think I can cast much more. My mind’s getting all foggy, I can’t remember the words real well, and if I said them wrong. . .” Vistan yawned, tried to recollect his sentence. “If I said them wrong, then you wouldn’t have any of us left. And that wouldn’t be good, because. . . because I’m sure Uranus wants to know what’s going on too. It would be unfair, you know, if only Neptune and Venus could watch. . .” His words had turned to mumbling, and then to nothing. Herkam looked at the boy for some time, annoyed that his practice session with Gust had been missed. What did he mean by all that anyway? The ramblings of a young lad worked to exhaustion, he supposed, and he thought no more of it. Everyone falling asleep, as if suddenly with civilization came peace, it made him want to sneer. Fire could strike at any time, as long as that accursed spy was watching, and the assassin would know when the time was ripe. Which left only him to stand guard, only him who seemed to have any idea of how much danger they were in, and only his sword for company.
*  *  *  *
  Gale stood at the brink of the void, as she felt she had been doing for all of eternity, and tried to understand the blackness that went beyond the absence of light. It made her remember all the times she had heard the word in hushed tones, or in open shouting, and shiver. She had always hoped that the Void was not real, that a world so vivid in life could never truly be lost in death. Earth, of course, had found a way to conquer death, but the thought turned her stomach, and for a blessed moment sickness conquered the blankness of her mind that had been there, she felt, for eternity. Why, then, was there a Hell? It seemed to her that nothing she could imagine was worse than this empty, formless hole. With Hell, people seemed quite comfortable and spoke bantersomely about. It was as if the terror of the Void reached far more souls than a life of eternal pain. Did people love life so? It seemed to her they must, for here she stood on the brink, as she had been doing for all eternity, and never once did she wish to take that one fatal step forward, though here there was nothing but herself and her thoughts as company. Was Hell, then, the thing people looked forward to upon their deaths? It seemed almost humorous, then, that those that wished her ill would damn her. For she felt, if only for the pleasure of sensation, the pain of fire and whip would be welcome. But as she stood there on the brink, it became ever more clear to her that Hell did not exist. For if there was a Hell for all those of evil allegiance, how was it there was no opposite, no other realm for all those of good hearts? And if there were such realms, why then did she look upon this empty vista, and see only the utter, complete winking out of her very soul should she take just one more step? How could I stand here for all eternity, and not be judged? No, this before her was the Void, and this was what welcomed her after her death. No fanciful realms of bliss and pain, no final justice to all, only this utter lacking in all things. No wonder, then, that the Void was a much more terrible insult than Hell, for the truth always held greater sting than lies. She vowed right then that she would never wish anyone, or anything, to enter this realm. Thinking of the legions of noble warriors, loving mothers, and laughing children that marched proudly, shining with the light of creation into this all-devouring darkness made her weep in despair. They think they can conquer it. They think, if only we believe enough, hope enough, have enough light, we can overcome this endless span of black. But they can’t, can they? Not even the gods can do that. It made her fear, that something held dominion over the gods. For are they not, too, subject to death? If the sun exploded, and Venus sheathed in flames, would it not bring an end to her? Or if all her worshippers were to be wiped from the face of the Earth, would she not blink out too with the last of them? Oh, beauty as that can not be imagined, how could any evil suffer to devour you? But that was just it. This Void, it was not a Being. It could be called neither evil nor good, for it is not a creation of will, and can never be used for those of either allegiance. This was simply how it was. It seemed to her that that was the greatest revelation she’d ever had in all her life. She stood there before the brink, and missed the kiss of wind upon her cheeks, and wondered how long eternity could last.
  Gust reluctantly stole himself from his bed, and pulled on his boots for another day of hard use. He must have fallen asleep. He’d fallen asleep, and missed her revival? By Uranus, of all the stupidest things to do! How could anyone let him miss this, this most important moment of all time? What if she rose, and saw I was not there to comfort her? No matter the time they had, how can I ever be forgiven in truth? Gods but what was the point of reaching Spa, when all fate was arrayed against their love? Rushing down the stairs, heedless of the other customers, he looked for where he knew his Armsmaster would be. “Herkam! By Uranus, Herkam, you didn’t let me sleep through Gale’s revival for my own good, did you? It doesn’t matter much if I’m healthy when we reach Spa, if you idiots make sure we can never--”
  “Be calm, lord. We are indeed incompetent. More so than even you counted on, for we have not even an idea of where we can reach a healer in this city. Gale lays in a coma yet, and the rest of you sleep happy as babes that this is so.”
  “We sleep only in peace because at peace we can be, my good friend. For as long as you accompany me, I shall never fear my bed at night. But I feel much refreshed, Herkam! Let us go find what we need on our own.”
  “My Lord, what language do you think we are speaking?” It brought Gust’s enthusiasm to a sudden startled halt. He laughed at himself. “Well spoken, good sir. But who among us would dare intrude on Laura’s sleeping form?” The look of fear only years of long acquaintance could see Gust found in Herkam’s eyes, and he laughed once more. “Just my point. I would not doubt the fumes of Uranus would choke me where I stand should I even entertain the thought. Well then, I guess there’s another English-speaking person in our party. Shall we wake him?”
  “That loon? I should think not, lord. Better we wait for the maiden to wake.”
  “Do you know what? I don’t even know how old those girls are. We really should find out. In all this time of travel, such common facts I never wondered upon. But today I feel it is a time to do such things, nay? But no, Herkam, the brother of the King shall do quite nicely on this sojourn. Any higher standards and I fear I myself shall not be allowed!”
  “As you will, lord.” Herkam stood up, the night’s watch weighing heavily upon his shoulders.
  “It is strange.” Gust mused, looking towards the shock of red hair that was all you could see of Vistan’s sleeping form, going up the stairs to Fisher’s apartment. “To think that a bastard, living on the street without comfort or education, could turn out so polite and responsible. Do you think he lied to us?” Herkam grunted something noncommittal.
  “Perhaps lie is not the right word. He does have his Father’s eyes. But surely he had a mother, a home. Orphans are not welcome in my kingdom.” Gust frowned for a moment at that, seeing for the first time an orphan within his kingdom that had saved his life, that had the kingdom its way would never have lived to do so. It struck him as stupid. Herkam rapped upon the door, and entered with little more warning. His first brisk step towards the door landed him on a floor frozen over impossibly with ice. The blademaster teetered once, then his traction gave way and he landed painfully on his back.
  “What the hell!” Herkam cursed. The ice now was melting quickly, and coming together into a ball of water everyone was well used to. Gust laughed. Fisher laughed. The Prince offered his hand to the victim of the elemental’s practical jokes, and merrily jested, “Such is the power of Neptune scorned.” Herkam did not smile, but rather glared death at the bobbing sphere before them. He wondered if a sword could cleave the damn thing in twain.
  “What brings you two here?” Fisher asked, looking well refreshed, though it was doubtful he had been sleeping.
  “Nothing less than the very revival of your niece, highness! Herkam, go get the horses and take care of Gale. Elder, we have need of your diplomacy--” A spontaneous great blearing of horns and drums shook the walls of the inn, waking a large portion of the neighborhood and ended in only slightly embarrassed laughter. “By Uranus, what has possessed this city? Well, all that for later. Do you know a hospital nearby?”
  “A hospital? Isn’t that a little. . .public?” Fisher asked.
  “Let them strike. I grow weary of fear. Haven’t we already annihilated their favorite pets?”
  “Not their favorite.” Fisher muttered, but he did not offer up any further protest.
  “I propose that upon giving the Princess to their care, we will allow Hydrosphere alone to watch over her, so that when she wakens only her childhood friend and confidant is there to meet her. Whatever confusion or shame she will have she needn’t feel in front of us, and then we can all together come a day hence. She will be most likely ready once more for travel, and we can depart happily reunited. Agreed?”

   Something was wrong. She was in horrible pain. Why would she be in pain all of a sudden? She hadn’t felt anything for so long, why pain now? After she’d died? It didn’t make sense at all. It wasn’t fair. But the pain wracked her with growing determination, overcoming the darkness around her. It stung horribly, she couldn’t bear it except that she had to, as she had absolutely no control. It felt like she was burning. I’ve felt like this before. . . And then with a surge her vision returned, and the light shone red underneath her closed eyes. It was so bright it blinded her even through her clenched eyelids. The pain was everywhere. A vague sense of comfort teased her mind. Then a suffusion of joy and love wrapped her up and took away all the pain and the light to a world of utter bliss.
  “Hydrosphere!” She gasped.
  “What was that?”
  “I think she moved her lips!”
  “There! I can see her eyes moving beneath her lids. She’s awake. Somebody get her food. Water. Thank Neptune for the Lakes! Princess Gale is alive.”
  “Oh Hydrosphere. How could I have forgotten you? Why didn’t you talk to me? Why weren’t you there?”
  “You’re an elemental! You can flood the world, but you can’t even talk to me?”
  “Oh I don’t care anymore anyway. It’s enough that you’re here! If I could move I’d hug you. . .if I could hug you. Oh I haven’t been so happy since. . .Where am I?”
  “I think she’s delirious.”
  “Of course! Think of the pain. Even the memory will feel real enough. But she’s back. She should be hearing us. What is she saying? Give her some water!”
  A spigot was put into her mouth, and they let a careful trickle run down her throat, not so much that she had to even swallow.
  “Dayton? But. . . Why am I in Dayton?”
  “Hydrosphere, don’t leave me! Please, even if I have to eat, can’t you just keep talking? It hurts out there.”
  “Hydrosphere? Oh, yes. She has an elemental, doesn’t she? She must think she’s still in the royal palace. Is it permanent do you think?”
  “No, just initial confusion. There’s nothing here, she’ll have to open her eyes eventually.” As if on cue, Gale opened her eyes, to take in a world she thought she’d never see again. Her skin felt on fire from the light above. It was so sensitive, even the filtered sunlight burned.
  “Please.” She spoke for the first time. “It’s so bright. . .” Immediately the room scurried to shudder the windows. Gale winced at the contact of her skin with anything it touched. She wanted to just float in the air. Flight, though, was a magic of Wind. Sometimes she felt all magic belonged to some other element.
  “Princess, are you hungry? Can you eat?” The thought of food was horrible. She doubted she could stomach anything. The look on her face was enough for the doctors. Who started to mutter about osmosis into the blood veins. . .
  “Excuse me. What’s going on?” A doctor looked annoyedly at the interruption, and then remembered who it was. “Lady, you were brought here in a coma, if not for magic you would already have been dead. As in, large amounts of magic over a long period of time.”
  “I love you.” Gale murmured to her elemental.
  “Oh, nothing. Go on.”
  “Well, errr, Princess, your uncle came in with you on a pallet and handed you over to us. We wouldn’t let him stay after that, but we’ll send a message if you want him back.. .”
  “No, that’s all right. Why was I with my uncle?”
  “I’m sorry, but he didn’t tell us. . .”
  Gale obliged him with a smile as if she were talking to a very stupid child, and then went on. “That’s weird. Why don’t I remember?”
  The doctor was wringing his hands in nervousness now. “Well, it’s typical after a time of severe trauma for your subconscious mind to block it all off. But with a little therapy and some time among familiar things, I’m sure it will pass. Right now we’re more concerned with getting some food in you, and letting your skin heal over. I mean, the water’s mended everything, but even magic can’t make your skin age and thicken. You might feel some stinging for a bit, but--”
  Gale laughed. “Some stinging? Is that what you call it? Gods but I’d hate to hear your definition of ‘incredible, unbearable pain’! Oh, thank you Hydro. Oh it’s like I’m in a waterfall. . .”
  “What?” The Doctor cried in anguish.
  “I’m sorry. Are you finished?” The tone made it implicit that he was, whether he wanted to be or not. Hydrosphere’s companionship flooded her mind, and for a moment all her worries were drowned in him. Gust never even crossed her mind.
  *  *  *  *
  “At war! Then. . . my brother? Oh, thank Neptune. Everyone? No one’s died? His hand shelters us, then. Maybe He wouldn’t let me die. Oh I know it was you, but you are Neptune. The most perfect part of Neptune to ever grace the Earth. Can Gods do that? Are they more powerful than death? What magic that falls upon the earth is only a tiny fraction of what they radiate, and what they radiate is only a tiny fraction of the power they hold, and think of the things we can do just with that. How did you keep me alive? Oh, thanks, that explains everything. I thought Water couldn’t heal anything this bad-- Oh, I see. You weren’t healing, only protecting from further injury. That’s a cute loophole. But back to the war. What news?”
  A nurse bringing in flowers and pillows overheard the question and assumed it was directed towards her. “There is wondrous news on that, Princess! The whole city is still celebrating our victory. They say it was a slaughter, that we routed an army ten times our size--” Gale raised an eyebrow in skepticism. “Well of course that’s just what they say. I’m sure the tale’s grown traveling all the way from Texas, but after losing for so long you must understand we’re all ready to rejoice in such a glorious thing.”
  “Why did we win?” Gale prodded politely. The agony of lying on the bed vying with the glow of joy for her Kingdom. It felt strange to be speaking English. Why was that?
  “That is the best part. But I wouldn’t want to spoil the story, when a bard could tell it so much better. . .I would really do a disservice to the Dragon Knight.”
  “Good nurse, know that the joy I have for my Kingdom’s victory already fills my heart. The way the story is told does not matter, so long as it is honest.”
  “Forgive me, Princess! I did not mean to say. . .” There she broke off, not even knowing what she did not mean to say but knowing that somehow she had done something wrong and if she wasn’t forgiven--
  “It’s all right.” Gale said softly, wishing she could move.
  “Thank you, Princess. Here, I will tell what I can of the battle. The divisions of our Kingdom had reformed at the Red River, and Fire came upon them only two nights afterwards. Damnable Fire, it always attacks during the night. Their Venusians have been enchanted, so that they can see as if the light of the midday sun shines across the landscape, and we can not discern friend from foe. At once the magi battled, the magic so palpable you felt like you could almost see the currents rising from the earth and striking each other down. Then some battle wizard harnessed the river itself, and this great pillar of water shot into the air, so that one could see it a hundred miles away. Some say it was a sheet of water raised up like a wall. . . Whatever its form, the water contained the entire force of the river’s flow for at least a minute. I don’t dare think of how many gallons that is.”
  “And?” Gale asked giddily.
  “The fire magi. . . you could tell they were trying to break the spell, but Neptune is always stronger in the presence of water, and the mage casting it was channeling all of his. . . well, he collapsed after it was cast.”
  Backlash. The terror that lurks in the night, the monster you can never see that always hopes to snatch you. As a child, the word was a demon that haunted her in the night, and she wept tears of silent terror underneath her blankets. . .
  “So it rose into the sky like the fist of Neptune, and smashed itself on the charging foe. The land itself broke under the fury of the blow, an entire legion had been wiped out, utterly. Obliterated! There was so much water the ground couldn’t even soak it up. It was as if a new lake had been formed directly on top of Fire’s army.”
  “One spell? That’s the glorious triumph?” A phyrric victory, then. We lost one of our best to wipe out creatures of magic. The magic is still there, just dispersed again. There to be used for more magic. . .
  “No. When the water shook the land, the entire legion of Venusians erupted into flame. I don’t know how to say it. The sight of this dark column of water smashing into this explosion of brilliant flames. . .like the elements themselves were grappling. . . And then the fire magi sent the flames at our forces, and blew great holes in our line. The general ordered an attack, and then another legion of Venusians struck from the flank. If the battle had gone as planned, the two legions would have pincered our entire army and slaughtered it, but instead it was an even match. Orcs, goblins, trolls, ogres, imps--Venusian scum, born of Fire, the warped children of the Goddess of Love, the most beautiful creation in the universe-- fought brutally with men, men with wives and children and a Kingdom and a King. . .and a God. The magic claims almost as many as the actual fighting, but it evens out for the most part, leaving it once more up to the armies to claim victory. We do not know who would’ve won, then, but a sparkle of turquoise shone in the light of the moon, and a gleam of a metallic lance was all the enemy had for warning before the Dragon Knight smashed into the Wizards of Fire. The lance skewered two in its first strike, and then the dragon unleashed the ice of the arctic upon them. The magi desperately called forth gouts of flame and steam at the dragon, but the Knight held out her sword and the flames never reached her, even as the dragon bit and clawed and hewed, slaying the foundation of Fire’s armies. A desperate retreat was called, and the cowardly Venusians threw down their weapons and scattered, but our magi threw up spikes of ice and boxed them in, and we slaughtered them wholesale with not one casualty. Their entire army was decimated before the sun had risen. And the Dragon Knight? In the midst of chaos she had vanished as quickly as she had arrived, leaving a bright ribbon of green cloth and a note:
Just so will the demons of Hell be extinguished by my hand
--Siplar, Dragon Knight.
  “Just that! What does it mean? Do you think she is some sort of Hero from the past, returned to save our kingdom? I’ve already heard of other heroes who rode upon dragons!”
  Siplar. The name sounded strange in her mind. “Did I know her? Know about her, then? Well, tell me about her when you have the time.”
  The nurse continued the tale, oblivious to Gale’s murmurings. “The army was not content to wait, though. After running for so long, they wanted to ride all the way back across Texas, reclaim it for their own and slay the entire army of Fire. The Venusians are in a complete panic! They’ve even fled from the eastern half, which hadn’t even seen battle! Do you think we will regain Texas, princess? I hope so, my sister used to live there; and the refugees are so pitiable. . .”
  “I don’t know. I thank you, nurse, but I’m dreadfully tired, it hurts to keep my eyes open.” It hurts doing absolutely nothing, it hurts more than I’ve ever hurt before, but I guess there’s nothing I can do about that, so I might as well complain about my eyes.
  Forgive me, Princess! Sleep well, and maybe the pain will fade by the time you wake. The doctors hope to feed you, too. I don’t know how they’re going to do that while you sleep, but. . . Goodnight, Princess.”
  “Please, Hydrosphere. Let me sleep. I can’t sleep with all this pain. . .” Blue eyes shuttered in a sigh of wondrous relief, and her angelic form knew the deep peace of dreams once more.

Chapter 10. A Bargain Struck

  Someone nudged Vistan, and he woke, abruptly learning the merits of sleeping on a bed as opposed to a chair, which had left him with a great desire to never move again.
  “Stiff and sore? Get a taste of old age, little one, it might be the only one you have.” Fisher laughed, then, but Vistan didn’t think it funny. He needed to change. Eat. Take a bath. He felt like his entire life had devolved to meeting such needs, instead of achieving or learning anything. It should have been Lars waking him. He should never have come. He had a prophecy to fulfill and no one to teach him. He couldn’t do it without Lars. His entire kingdom would be slaughtered, his Patron would fall silent. . .
  “Get up, lad! It can’t be that bad. You want to see the Princess, don’t you?”
  Vistan jumped like a child found guilty of stealing cookies, “Of course I do.” His calm front and innocent words would have done wonders with everyone else, but Fisher looked at him with a slight reproaching look, and gripped his knobby cane as if to stop it from coming into contact with the boy’s head. The message was clear: don’t you dare.
  Vistan shifted his eyes away from the old loon begging for someone to rescue him, and Laura mercifully obliged. “Tell the Prince I won’t be coming. I have to go kill someone.” Violet pools narrowed as she unconsciously brushed the hilt of her knife.
  “Be sure you win.” Fisher advised sagely. Vistan almost crawled off his seat from between them to escape, slinking to the stairs and making his way to the bed. Gust and Herkam intercepted him going down and encouraged him to hurry up good-naturedly, then looked to Laura simply because of all the things in the tavern their eyes wished to rest upon her most. Laura nodded and pulled her veil over her face, leaving the Piper’s Hearth with the sound of snowfall.
  “She’s out to kill.” Gust murmured, distraught.
  “It seems assassins have collided, Prince.” Fisher explained.
  “ ‘When assassins collide. . .’” The bard began, letting the words trail off.
  “Just so. But where is that lad? We should be off.” Herkam said impatiently. “This city is too festive, it’s giving me the creeps.”
  “We still haven’t asked about that?” Gust asked irritatedly.
  “Gale will be pleased to see her Kingdom so.” Fisher rebuked. The two younger men shuffled uncomfortably under the weight of the other’s age. Time seemed to extend in the presence of Gale’s uncle, and never for the better.
  “So tell me, Gust, what is the nature of Evil?” Fisher asked spontaneously.
  “Evil? That which harms, I guess.” Gust answered, nonplussed.
  “Is it evil, then, to defend against Earth’s onslaught?”
  “That’s different.” Gust cursed the weak, flustered argument. “I mean. . .well, when it is unjust harm.”
  “Who are we to judge? All of us believe our actions to be just.”
  “We are people, and we have decided upon a common code that when not observed causes great harm, and it doesn’t matter what you believe if it breaks the code.”
  “Majority rules, then, on decisions of justice?”
  “Law rules!” Gust changed his argument quickly, knowing if he had agreed the canny bastard would have trapped him in some fine net of logical fallacies.
  “So evil is breaking the law?”
  “When you break the law, you are evil.” Gust corrected quickly.
  “But that doesn’t define evil.”
  “If you want it defined, define it yourself!” Gust angrily gave up fighting on this alternate plane.
  Fisher shook his head in disgust, and the chill of his disfavor shamed the Prince into gazing morosely at the floor. Where was that accursed lad?
  Vistan trembled with emotion, a nimbus of fear coiling about his gut. His hands were shaking, and his mind knew that this was a joyous occasion, one to be looked to with anticipation and happiness. Suddenly the slit down his green robes looked indecent and ugly. Hot water, turned cold against his skin, still ran in rivulets down his body, his mess of red hair for once washed flat against his scalp. When had he cut it last, in Bann? This was all wrong. Someone called out his name in reprimand, soon they would abandon him. Just like his father had abandoned him, because no one had ever judged he belonged to him in the first place. They felt no responsibility for him, this group he traveled with. He was not a part of them. His legitimacy lay in a coma in Philadelphia. The only person who ever cared about him. Damn it all, hadn’t he saved all their lives twice already? Hadn’t he been essential this entire time? How could they deny him their loyalty after acknowledging his power? He shook in fear and cold, quickly sitting down on the bed. What right did he have to appear before her? If he had cared for her anything close to as much as Herkam did for the Prince, he would have been able to protect her. All of them had a duty to protect the royalty at all costs, blaming it on another’s lack of protection was not an excuse. If one fails another should succeed. Both of the royalty had been in fatal peril, he had been there for neither. Why should they accept him, when he did not perform his duty? When he had not sworn the same oaths as all the others before their kings to see the Prince to Spa? He held no fealty to the Prince of Wind or the Princess of Water. His destiny was the only thing he had to be loyal to. How could they accept him, when he did not truly belong? Another shout from below, a last warning. So they weren’t going to send someone personally up to get him. He didn’t merit that in their eyes. Green eyes flashed in pain before narrowing in concentration. “Volo!”
  Vistan gracefully rose a foot into the air, and shot through the window into the sky, the wind jetting across his face. How many children watched the birds in their utter freedom and wished to fly? And now I can, and I feel more trapped than any of them. My entire life already foretold, my soul a tool of my Patron to ensure his victory. . .
  But spiraling higher and higher into the sky towards the beaming sun and billowing clouds, he left his worries behind for a moment, knowing when those who’d abandoned him reached the Hospital’s doorstep, they’d find him there with full knowledge of their betrayal and proof that it could not defeat him. Proof that while they rode the crowded, dirty streets on wretched horses to get where they wanted, he could roam the skies. That their petty skills of horsemanship were nothing compared to his magic. That his magic was more powerful than anything.
*  *  *  *
  “Thank you.” Laura said quickly, leaving the fruit stand behind. It had been easy enough to find someone who had seen the slick devil, as all she need do was ask and everyone was ready to provide whatever they could. His trail meandered all around the city, but now she knew his place of rest. Maybe only for today, or only for yesterday, but a place of permanence that he just might still be at, still be tied to. It was these places one must make their kills at, just as a hunter waits at a waterhole for the deer. Eventually, he would have to come, and then it would be his death. The silky warmth of the veil across her skin felt good. With her veil, she became an entirely different person, something with the fluidity and grace of a dolphin, and the sting of a viper. This was her element, when she became more perfectly herself than any other time. Without seeing her like this, one never truly knew her. Which means no one truly knew her, because all those that had seen her like this were her victims, and none of her victims had survived. Two words flashed in her mind like beacons of expectation, the Twilight Dragon. If he was not there, the hunt would go on, her patience was infinite; but the kill burned within her as if it had already happened, because she knew that every moment of her time brought her that much closer to his end. She made no attempt to hide herself, let him come if he wants. If he ran, then she could not pursue, but she did not think he would run. He is bound to us in his mind. Something very powerful had made him change allegiance, an event so strong that it would dominate his life from that moment on, so strong that his decisions were now already made. His decision to join the party was irrevocable, and that will be his doom. He can not escape, and the world is only so large for him to hide in, and when we meet he will die.
  She now stood at the front of the Twilight Dragon, with a fanciful scrawling of a serpent black as night shooting flames. Something made her hate the inn the moment she saw it, in a place of thought that never reached reason. For a moment she only listened, letting her senses reach such a fine tuning that even the humming of insects reached her attention, so that she mulled over the sound until deciding its relevance. After a minute of this, she relaxed and opened the door. He was not there. A portly innkeeper began his routine welcome speech, then gave it up so that he could drink in the image of a sight more divine than the most glorious spectacles of nature and man put together. Wrapped in wispy black silk, Laura turned shimmering violet pools to return his gaze.
  “Tell me, kind sir, did you have a customer dressed all in black, yeh tall and silent?” It took a moment for the voice as mellifluous as the greatest of bards to penetrate his rapture into the layer of thought, but then he answered, “There was, my lady. . .” his mind lacked fitting words to describe the man, who had appeared as if from the shadows with gold in hand and not a single word before entering his room.
  “Has he permanently left?” Excitement flooded her mind. She had been so close!
  “I’m sorry, my lady, but I cannot tell. He came here with nothing but his clothes, and left just the same.”
  “I see.” Laura hissed, the quiet tension of the hunter reclaiming her pose. “Then do this for me: if he returns, fire this into the sky.” She handed him a slight rod of black metal. “Just press this button to shoot out the water sphere, and I will see it.” Of course it was meant to be a weapon, but a ninja was continuously improvising when it came to the kill. The only thing that mattered was the end effect, if the tool helped to cause it, then it had served its purpose. “Do not try to follow him. Do not interfere with him in any way. In fact, do not do anything to him if you value your life.” Her eyes narrowed to slits to bring home the warning, until something in his pose made her nod, knowing he understood. “Now, tell me, which way did he go?”
  “Out the front door. . .” The man uttered ashamedly, having nothing else to offer her. His hands shook with the responsibility that the fragile black rod had forced upon him, but his eyes never strayed from her face. He doubted he could perform such a task even if his inn was burning down. Better to burn to death, if only to die with the light of her form filling my mind. He forgot he ever had a wife and children to return to once the day was done. With one smooth motion, she had somehow bowed, turned, and left the Twilight Dragon without a sound. The place resonated with her presence a moment longer, and then felt so desolate without her that the man sighed, cradling his last connection to her in his arms.
  Laura never thought of him again, already concentrating on possible people who had seen him, and possible places he would go. A moment of sickening dread overtook her, when she considered the Princess, but she breathed deeply for a moment and let it pass. Hydrosphere was there, he would die before he could even lay an eye upon her. Thus she needn’t bother to consider it. Where, then? For food? A horse? Entertainment? The city was so vast, so incredibly unlike the forests of her home, that he could be anywhere and for anything. The obvious answer to this was thousands of witnesses. Eventually he would stay in one place too long.

  Gust rode through the dusty, crowded streets with a troubled gaze, looking back just in case of--something. His armsmaster rode at his side, continuously scanning the crowd for any would-be assassins. The crowd still thrummed with suppressed joy, and it was almost enough to break through his mind and infect him with the feeling. Fisher rode behind, trying to read on horseback and failing miserably. For the first time it annoyed him. Here he was, a Prince, and this was his entourage. He had to have this fool beside him, telling everyone just how grand he was, that his choice companion was a loon. And what was with that kid? Did he really dislike Gale that much? He felt like he had no authority over anyone anymore, he had to force his way through these crowds, and not one of them kneeled at his passing. He felt like shouting out, “I am the Prince of Wind! I demand you let me pass!” It was in this state of irritation that he saw for the first time the black cloaked traveler standing directly in front of his horse.
  “Ho!” Gust shouted, wheeling his horse in violently. “What in Hell are you doing? Get out of my way.” Herkam’s blade was already half-way out of its sheath. His eyes flashed in anger. The armsmaster had not seen him. Gust saw this, and was afraid.
  “Excuse me, my lord. A thousand pardons, but I have a proposal for you.”
  “How do you know me?” Gust’s hand rested lightly on his sword, but he wondered if he could draw in time. The other would have a knife. Could he dive at him with the knife before his sword was drawn?
  “I was once a spy for the Kingdom of Fire.” The black-robed man stated simply.
  “How do you know my language?” Gust asked, taken aback.
  Xe-har paused a moment at this, knowing that he could not be caught in a lie, but also knowing that the damn kunoichi would have told of him and destroyed his reputation. How could he talk sense into these people, with their prejudices so set in stone? Better to gamble that neither had spoken of him, he decided. “Your mage gave this power to me. Where is he now?” Divert their attention, put them on the defense. If they ask too many questions, they’ll know too much.
  “He’s ill.” The Prince answered guardedly. If this was an assassin, he had just asked where they lived. Gods, but was no place safe? “When did--?” Herkam edged over to Gust, and spoke of Laura’s meeting with the person. After a short conversation, Gust turned back to the patient man, a small island of calm amidst a river of walking and riding people. “A proposal, you say.” Gust prodded.
  “I’m aware of a spirit that has been monitoring your every motion. It is what brought the flame falcons down upon you, and will continue to plague you, chart your every move, until something catches you unaware. I don’t know how well protected you are, but with something like that I beg to venture that it could mean your doom.”
  Herkam nodded to himself. It was true. He had been right all along, but no one had heeded him. Then he remembered that this could still be an assassin, and rebuked himself for losing his concentration.
  “We were aware of that.” Gust said coolly.
  Xe-har had no idea how they could have been, but it only made it that much easier for him. Offering to slay a foe they had no idea existed is hardly as good as offering to kill one they knew of but could not defeat. “It is within my abilities to destroy this, and any others that they send against you.”
  “How?” Gust asked, intrigued.
  “They will recognize me as a friend, and will not avoid me. It is not very intelligent, I can walk right up to them and send them back into the flames they were birthed in.”
  “Because. . . . I am a Venusian.” Two swords were drawn in an instant, Gust swearing as he reared his horse back. The living, thinking creature before him had just transformed into a mindless, evil creature born of flame, whose only goal was the destruction of the rest of the world. And yet it made no move towards them. After a moment Gust ashamedly sheathed his sword, letting his guard down.
  “A Venusian?” He asked hoarsely.
  “A Draconian, to be exact. The point is, the spirit will see that I am crafted by Venus, like itself, and so will instantly assume we are on the same side. It will never be able to see past that, even when I draw my blade. I am the only one who can do this. I can save your lives, and the futures of your Kingdoms, everything.”
  “Whose side are you on?”
  “Yours, if you will have me. That is all I wish. Once I do this for you, let me join your party, and help you reach the Eternal City.”
  “Why would you do this? Turn against your Patron, your Mother?”
  “Your pardon, Lord, but I am always the son of Venus, and her servant. This war is not between the gods, though. We instigated this war, and we’re taking advantage of our Patrons’ gift: magic. That is all. You might believe your God threatened, but even if this succeeds, you won’t be able to kill Venus. Nothing is that strong. What I think you meant was against my Kingdom. If you don’t know, King Bernardo was assassinated, by orders of his own brother, who now holds the throne. I loved the King, and I will have my revenge.”
  “Why don’t you just. . . assassinate him, then?”
  “My Lord, it is not within my abilities to succeed in such a venture.” That was a much simpler reason than his true one, that was one that they would believe, and not bother him anymore with. They’d heard him out. They had already decided to take him in. It was perfect. Everything had gone perfectly.
  Then Fisher asked a question, “Tell me, how many of my kin have you killed?” It hung there, in the air, for an eternity. It shocked Gust, who had almost accepted him, just like that. It shocked Herkam, who had forgotten the old man was even there. It threw Xe-har into a panic. How could he answer that? What words could possibly justify? What could he say? Say nothing. Don’t answer that at all. Any more words and they will hate you. So he knelt, like a criminal accepting the magistrate’s verdict, and whisked away into the crowd, instantly lost to all of their eyes.
  Fisher looked troubled, brows knitted together in serious concentration, and for a moment Gust shied away from questioning him. His need to understand the situation soon outweighed everything else, though. “You knew him? And you didn’t tell me?”
  Fisher looked at him, or rather straight through him, looking at something nobody else could see. “Prince of Wind, we have a dilemma. That was a draconian, one of the most intelligent, most powerful, fastest, most deadly Venusians known to man. Not only a Draconian, that is the Draconian. The King’s shadow. Lastair. You might have never heard of him, but in our Kingdom the word strikes fear into the hearts of the city mayors on up. He has personally killed or directed the killing of Gale’s mother, her sister, her brother, and probably some others we can’t trace back to him. Lastair is one of the greatest enemies of the Throne, and his death is worth an army.”
  “If you had told me, we could have had him!” Gust retorted angrily, scanning the crowds around him nervously.
  “The creature you saw there wasn’t Lastair. That was Xe-har.”
  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Gust swung an accusing gaze at the man’s riddles.
  “He has undergone a change. You are a Bard, surely you sensed the emotions roiling around him.”
  “For the last time, I’m not a Bard.” Gust muttered instinctively. The Deepsong was weak in the city, and without concentrating on it he couldn’t even feel it. Another reason to get out of this city. “What kind of change?”
  Fisher sighed, as if reevaluating the intelligence of the creature before him. “Lastair believed he was doing the right thing, when he was killing us. That’s why he doesn’t regret it. That’s why he’s fit to be the greatest of all assassins to stalk the earth. He puts his soul into it. But obviously now he doesn’t want to support the new king. The new right thing to do is to bring him down. The only way to defeat Fire, you see, is Prismi. Killing the new king won’t help. They outnumber us, and wield the greatest of elements in war. Seeing this, Xe-har wants to see us to our success.”
  “You can tell all that just by looking at him?” Gust scorned.
  “This is all guesswork, but it fits. The point is, we are safe from him, and he could be a great asset. If he was telling the truth, which I think he was, then it could mean the difference between life and death. Not just our lives, but the lives of every man, woman, and child in the Kingdoms.”
  “Just because we haven’t dealt with it yet doesn’t mean we will never defeat it.” Gust countered. “We are not desperate enough to sacrifice our souls for victory.”
  “You already travel with one assassin! What is the difference between the two, save which side the two served on? No difference! We are not making a pact with the Devil.”
  “How dare you compare Laura with that. . .thing! It’s not like we started this war. She is defending her country, while he slays innocents, people with wives, children, brothers, sisters. I don’t care if he thinks he is doing good, it is the end result that matters.”
  “What if he is doing good, and we are the ones who think we are doing good but are truly working evil? None of us really know who is right, we just believe in ourselves and fight for what we believe. The victor shall be known as right from then on, until the next war. This is an endless series of clashing desires, never a struggle between good and evil. All of us are fighting for the force of Good.”
  “That is a cynical viewpoint, old man, and I shall not sink to it. This draconian has done evil in murdering innocents. Twist words however you will, you can not escape that fact.”
  “I say again this is not the same Draconian that was the most feared assassin in the world. His King is dead, he wants revenge. He doesn’t want our downfall. He can provide a valuable service for us, that saves us time and energy, if not our very lives. Even if we kill one, who’s to say they won’t send another, and another, and another against us until we lose? Without him we will always be watched, our location will always be known. Right now, in the heart of the Wasser Reich, they can’t apply that knowledge to much action. But think if we ever need to enter the Feuer Reich! It would mean our instant death, and you know it.”
  Gust gave a desperate plea to Herkam, and the armsmaster shook his head. “Even so,” Gust muttered dejectedly, “even if we need him, emotion rules reason. Gale would never accept him, and would kill any of us who supported him. Also, if you forgot, Laura is right now hunting him down with intent to kill. I doubt any assassin will give up her quarry after the hunt has begun. It is not within our ability to persuade the women on this.”
  “Who said we were going to persuade them?” Fisher asked, surprised.
  “What, do you think the draconian can hide from Hydrosphere? They will find out, and know we went behind their backs.”
  “Certainly hiding will not work.” Fisher agreed, smirking.
  “Then it’s settled! He can’t join!” Gust threw his arms up in exasperation.
  “Where did you get that? ‘Emotion rules reason’?” Fisher asked coaxingly.
  “It is the first lesson of a Bard. With music, the beauty of all things, the essence of life, you can make all creatures of heart and soul feel whichever way they want. You can bring love between clashing armies, hate between brothers, you can make them fall asleep, wallow in despair, or rise up in jubilation. The heart is more powerful than the mind. . .” Then Gust lost his diatribe, and looked toward the morning sky in thought. “You aren’t suggesting. . .?”
  “She’s always loved your music, Lord.” Fisher answered with a bow.  
Chapter 11. Leaving Dayton.

  Gust strummed his harp idly, guiding his horse without ever looking at the road ahead. His mind mulled over a song, a song of peace and forgiveness, that could save the Wind Reich from the armies of Earth. As a Prince, it was his duty to serve the country in exchange for the power granted him the day of his birth. This dual sacrifice, this pact between King and serf, was the strength of all the Kingdoms. He hadn’t heard of anything going on in his Kingdom since the day he began his ill-fated journey to Gettysburg. Had they perhaps already lost? Were the teeming hordes of Earth already closing in on der Ossterreich? Der Faterland? Not my concern. He reminded himself. Everyone had their role to play. His was to reach Spa. He could not do everything, and be everywhere. All he could do was achieve his own quest, and have faith in everyone else to achieve theirs.
  “Halt!” Herkam barked angrily. “What game is this, boy?” Gust noticed for the first time that they stood before the whitewashed walls of the hospital, and in stark contrast two green shining orbs looked out toward him.
  Vistan gave a hard look back at the armsmaster. “I’m glad to know that I am as much a part of this group as all the others, and all of you have enough concern for me that you will wait for my arrival, or at least ask what ails me.” The words were as bitingly sarcastic as the boy could make them.
  “You lay the blame on us?” Herkam asked incredulously, “We all agreed to visit the Princess at dawn, it is not our fault if you break this agreement.”
  “Funny,” Vistan stated flatly, “I wasn’t there when you made this agreement. Instead, I was asleep, after sacrificing all my energy to see this party safely to Dayton, and upon reaching here, to act as a translator for Laura.”
  “We all feel gratitude for your magical services,” Gust answered, giving a hard stare at his armsmaster in case he disagreed. “They have been vital in our success, and have saved all our lives more than once. I apologize for thinking you well and whole, and aware of our intention to visit the Princess.”
  “There is no need, Lord.” Vistan bowed, cheeks warming in shame. Trying to give the Prince of Wind a guilt trip? By Uranus, I am mad! He has staked his life and the lives of his Kingdom on this, and I bicker that he isn’t giving me enough attention!
  “I’m glad you’re here, Vistan. Now let us get off these wretched horses and see what the miracles of the Great Lakes have worked on our lady.” Gust favored Vistan with a wink as he dismounted with the ease of routine. Fisher looked nervously at the Prince, and Gust shook his head. Not now. A hostler appeared as if from the air to take their horses and a bit of coin, and the four men entered the Hospital doors as one.
*  *  *  *
  “Morning already?” Gale sighed contentedly, stretching long unused, long wasted muscles given new life. “By Neptune it feels good to not feel anything!” She put the thanks in slant-wise to the globe of water spinning at her bedpost. “Would you like some breakfast?” She jibed, reaching a hand out to him. Hydrosphere happily lowered itself onto her hand, and Gale laughed as the rushing water tickled her palm. “Yes, well, I’m very hungry myself, thank you. Could you get food?” Hydrosphere lamentably rose from her palm and fluttered out of the room, but that did not stop the elemental from speaking with her.
  “On their way? This is no good. I’m not even dressed!” Gale blushed. “You’d be the one to say that, wouldn’t you!” “I would not!” “Some Patron you are! Can’t even get me some food!” Luckily, an attendant came in to wake her with breakfast already hot and steaming, asking how she felt today. Considering she was under Hydrosphere’s magical numbness, that question was difficult to answer. “Fine.” She answered with a smile. The word was magical, she had decided long ago. The one word in the English language that could stop any conversation dead in its tracks without anyone ever feeling insulted. After healing everyone became ravenous, as it took a lot of energy out of a person to promote so much cell growth. Thus the hospital was as much a cafeteria as a place of healing, for the water was all that was needed for healing. The meal offered fresh-baked bread already cut and golden with melted butter, peas, venison, and a cherry pie made especially for the Princess by the entire hospital. It was all so lovingly crafted and presented to her that tears slipped down her eyes. I love this Kingdom more than anything, more than life itself, and I almost lost it. I almost lost it all. Her voice quivered with emotion as she thanked the nurse, thanked everyone for all that they had done. As the attendant left to get her bath ready, Hydrosphere returned triumphant. “Yeah, you just try and pass that meal off as your own.” Gale laughed, joy blossoming in her heart so strongly that she doubted it could ever wilt. “Oh Hydrosphere, what would I do without you?” “Probably.” Gale laughed, but deep down knowing that he was wrong, that she’d probably be dead by now, by another’s knife or her own. Her and everyone else in the entire Kingdom, and Neptune himself. Hydrosphere is Neptune. Of course he is here! It means his very existence. . .
  “Princess, if you are done?” A nervous attendant said from the entrance of her room.
  “Yes?” Gale asked, surprising herself when she saw a plate empty of even crumbs.
  “Your bath is ready, and we took the liberty of asking for. . . Well, I guess that’s later.” The attendant smiled in expectation of the surprise, hoping she hadn’t given anything away.
  “Stop that.” Gale commanded angrily.
  “I’m sorry, my Lady. Please forgive me.” The attendant knelt in shame.
  “Oh, not you! I’m sorry. Here, I’d be happy if you led me to my bath.” The attendant smiled, a child told that it was all right, that she could have the last cookie if she wanted.
  “We did not know if you wanted help. . .” The attendant muttered apologetically, opening the door to a small but comfortable room. Gale wondered what stories were made about how royalty was treated, perplexed. Help? To take a bath? The very thought made her blush crimson.
  Fortunately, the attendant was busy showing the Princess where the towels and the powders and every other conceivable item could be found, and did not see her. “Thank you. That’s fine.” Gale said, divesting herself of the filmy robe the hospital had provided and looking excitedly at the promise of a hot bath. At least I won’t have to worry about washing my hair. She chuckled morbidly. Again, the word ‘fine’ worked its magic, and the attendant quickly left the room, closing the door quietly behind her. Gale looked around guiltily, then a smile broke across her face, and she dived into the pool. The heat enveloped her body instantly, a feeling so intoxicating she wished she never had to come up for air. Water. Our Kingdom. Our element. Our lives. It slipped across her and washed through her as she effortlessly made her way back up to the surface. Feeling the cool prickle of air against her skin, she breathed deeply, not once opening her eyes. Gods, how long had it been since she’d had a long, soothing bath? When Gettysburg was under siege, such things could not be afforded. She could never relax, knowing that even at that moment some person could be closing in on her, that some person wanted her blood. How long had it been under siege? It couldn’t have been more than a year. . .
  “Mmmm?” “Oh, right. Let them wait. I’ve not felt this good in years and I won’t let a bunch of men spoil it for me. Where’s Laura, anyway?” “No, that’s okay. I can ask them. Unless. . .?” “Thank Neptune. Gods, I imagine the most horrible things to scare myself with!” The methodic sounds of water lapping over the edges soothed her, and tensions she hadn’t even noticed she had were washed away. She floated, limp as a doll, blessing the day she was born. She waited a few minutes longer, then with a snap of motion had pulled herself out of the water and over to the sink. . .and more importantly, the mirror.  “A new look, most assuredly.” Gale remarked lightly, rubbing a hand over the slight fuzz on her scalp. “A good lesson, too.” She had almost lost it all. That would not happen again. Not unless she’d fought with her last dying drop. Not until backlash brought her under. She looked a moment at all the creams and lotions waiting for her, and looked away. “No time for that right now I guess. Are they here yet? Good.” Gale found the towels and wrapped one around her body with the ease of routine, and it clung to her in the way that brought a slight smile to her lips. “I suppose this will have to do.” Now for some clothes. She found the bell and rang it, marveling at the accommodations they were giving her. They’re treating me like a Princess.
  An attendant came in, eyes lowered in case of a mistake. “Princess?”
  “There will be some people arriving here shortly. Please show them to my room when they come.”
  “Yes, Princess. Is that all?”
  “No. I’m in a sort of quandary right now. I have absolutely nothing to wear except this towel.” Gale smiled warmly and the attendant laughed. “If the hospital could spare something for me, I’ll be sure to return it when the day is done and I’ve found something else. . .” But the attendant was shaking her head energetically.
  “No need for that, my Lady. No need.” The attendant quickly found a bathrobe that Gale shrugged into, and went on excitedly. “You see, we have this surprise. . . But won’t you come with me? Everyone else is waiting.”
  As they walked side by side down the whitewashed halls, the attendant quickly explained. “When we heard the Princess was here, and well, we knew we just had to do something for you. I guess I can’t ask how you got to be in a hospital in Dayton, but even so it is a very special thing. I bet we’ll be talking about it years from now.” And then a slight frown crossed her mouth. Gale had the same thought: If Dayton will exist years from now. “We just wanted to thank you, to show how much we all love you, and I know it isn’t like the courts at the castle, but we tried our best. . .”
  “Oh that doesn’t matter!” Gale exclaimed, hugging the woman twice her age. “You have all made me so happy these two days, I’m sure whatever it is will be the most marvelous thing I could dream of.”
  “Just so, Princess.” The attendant stated proudly, opening the door into the cafeteria. The hospital had taken all of the festive decorations from the previous week and put them all back up, adding what little more they could in the space of a day. The room sparkled with colour and splendour, and the entire staff and most of the patients shouted, “Bringer of the Tides!” at her entrance, honking horns and clanging pots. Gale laughed, amazed at the scene around her. “All this in one day?” She managed to shout over the crowds. A hundred different shouted answers assailed her, all of them glowing with the love they held for her and all she represented. The people sang “Anthem of Glory,” “Neptune,” and “The Tulips in the Breeze” to the accompaniment of flute and harp, lute and pipes as ten girls only six years younger than herself shyly presented the flowers they had collected for her all last evening. Gale kissed each of them on the cheek and breathed deeply into the heady scents of roses, germaniums, carnations, and Forget-me-nots. It was perfect.
  Then a barely-kept silence crept over the room, as the jewel of the goodbye party was presented to her. A dress of rich blue silk with swirls of purple dye, so finely woven that it seemed to be all of one piece, so gorgeous that it seemed to capture the blue clouds of Neptune itself, and atop it a pair of blue-diamond earrings, a turquoise necklace and a matching bracelet. The cost of it must have demanded the savings of each and every person in the room. “Gods, it is beautiful.” She managed to make out through frozen lips. “How can I ever accept this?”
  “We want you to have it.” A spokesperson assuringly said, holding it out to her with the tender care one might hold a baby. “We know it isn’t what it could be. . .” The person lamented, knowing the response that must follow such a thing.
  “No! It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” And Gale held it to her with wonder and joy. “Where can I try it on?” She asked, giddy with the thought of wearing an actual silk dress after all this time. Her enthusiasm spread like a yawn across the room, and she was soon escorted into a room.
  “No one’s ever been so sweet, Hydrosphere! Do they all feel like this about me?” “You’re right. If these are the only people in the entire kingdom who don’t wish me dead, I would still sacrifice everything to save them.” As she talked, she quickly slipped out of her bathrobe and lay the flowers down carefully on a counter. Taking up the dress again, she gazed at the majestic patterns the deep violet swirls etched through the field of blue. “I suppose everyone in the city knows I’m here now, any trouble? Good. That would be a fine way to spoil everything.” She slipped into her silken slippers and carefully stuck her earrings through. “Help me here.” She said, trying to tie the threads going up her back. Icy fingers reached out and deftly tied them up as she put the tiara on to a smooth, bare forehead. Her shoulders and a few inches lower were uncovered as she slipped on the sheer gloves that reached past her elbow. The dress allowed complete freedom of motion and she experimented with a spin, blushing at the result. A V-shaped slit ran all the way down her back to her waist. She was gorgeous, even without the hair. Especially with her smile. “They are? Perfect!” Let them see me just once like this, and without Laura by their side. It was almost a prayer as she opened the door, reentering a hall of rejoicing that four very confused men were standing at the other edge of.
*  *  *  *
  The peaceful, austere conditions that the exterior of the Hospital boasted ended abruptly the moment they opened the door. Music and singing rang throughout the halls, and nobody was there to greet the entourage on arriving. Vistan gave a bewildered look to his Prince, but Gust shrugged, as if to say ‘what else is new?’ . The city had been celebrating the entire time they’d been there, and now not even the Hospital had escaped the plague. Following the tunes of unfamiliar songs in a foreign tongue, they finally found themselves in a spacious hall full of expectant onlookers. Their entrance caused a few curious glances, but they quickly returned to watching an ordinary looking door as if the source of all knowledge and salvation lay within. Vistan smiled at the gay pennants and ribbons that sparkled in the rising sun. How many more times would he ever see such a sight on this trip? Twice? Whatever the number, he knew this moment was precious, that the entire stay in Dayton had been.
  The door opened meekly, and before the person had even stepped out a tremendous roar filled the room. It was in a foreign tongue, but it was easy to understand the feeling beneath it. Utter, unfettered adoration. A lady sparkling in blue jewelry and resplendent in a wondrous blue and purple dress stepped out with a huge smile to take in the entire crowd. After a moment of dazed rapture, Vistan noticed the almost-bald head and his mouth dropped in surprise.
  “Gale!” Gust shouted, one step ahead of the rest. “I can’t believe that’s you!” But his voice was drowned out by all the others, and it was obvious that it never reached her ears. Her gaze swept over the four men and she nodded her head in greeting, but then she was swept back into the party as women jabbered away in English, probably about her dress. “What now?” Gust asked Herkam, suddenly wishing he could see her again.
  “I doubt she’d want you to interrupt, and I doubt our reunion should be observed by half the people in the city, either. You might as well wait until she comes to you.”
  “Hydrosphere!” Fisher cried out as the elemental whizzed to his palm. “And how were things here? Hopefully better than us. Well, I guess it obviously is better, considering. Though many times happy faces are used to disguise the pain, hide it from one’s own mind so as to not have to confront it. How could a person trick herself like that? If it is a lie conceived by the mind, than surely that same mind will know it for a lie when the lie is used against itself. And yet it works. Is there, then, more than one mind in a body? Each with its own priorities and goals, thoughts and beliefs? How do they work together--?”
  Vistan did not notice the old man’s ramblings as he silently maneuvered to a seat in which he could gaze upon Gale some more. He had never seen so much of her flesh before, it hadn’t even occurred to him that he ever would, but it was glorious. In a spell of awe, his shining green eyes barely blinked as he traced her across the room, talking with one person than another, kissing girls and hugging boys she had never before met in her life. It made him wonder, just for a moment, if she were always so affectionate. If he could go up and hug her right now, and tell her how glad, how incredibly happy he was to see her alive and well. But it seemed that any motion he made would only break the spell, and so he sat, dreaming a dream he knew could not be fulfilled.
  The party came to an informal end half an hour later with the four men arrayed just so across the back of the cafeteria. With that, Gale finally waved in their general direction and made her way over to them. Hydrosphere zipped away from Fisher in a puff of steam to ride happily at her side, and the rest of the partiers took the hint and started to filter away.
  “I’m sorry!” Gale said, a flushed smile on her face. “I told them to let you wait in my room, but I guess they forgot. I’m so glad you waited, though!”
  Gust, being the nearest person, decided she had said that to him, and wondered how he should respond. Looking at her now, so happy and so beautiful, it made him ashamed to know what he was going to do to her. So much so that he did not think himself worthy to speak to her anymore, and lowered his head with troubled eyes. It is a necessary evil. He reminded himself. Maybe someday she’ll understand.
  Herkam, all business, answered when Gust faltered. “Are you well, Princess?”
  Gale gave a darting look of inquiry toward the elemental, and whatever it thought in answer allowed her to nod. “I sometimes think the gift of the lakes is greater than magic itself.”
  “What will you need to be ready to travel again?”
  “What happened to all my old stuff? Oh. Okay, I need serviceable clothes, for one. Food, water, cooking ware, a new horse. . .” Even as she thought about it more things popped up, until she was ready to moan with the burden of acquiring all of it. Where was Laura? Laura would help in this. . .
  “How long will this take, Princess?”
  “Give me today, Herkam. I’ve got all afternoon and evening, that should do.” Whether she was convincing herself that she had enough time or him was not clear.
  “Do you need any help?” Any bodyguards? The question, unspoken, still loomed in the conversation.
  “I have Hydrosphere. But where’s Laura?”
  “We don’t know, Princess. She left early this morning.” Best not to say why.
  “Oh.” Gale said when it was obvious nothing else was forthcoming. “Then I guess we aren’t all waiting on me at least. Did she say where she was going?”
  “No.” Herkam said straightly, offering nothing. Gale frowned, then tried not to show her worry in front of all the others. They wouldn’t lie to her. There was probably nothing wrong. Still. . . . “Oh well. I’ll be back by tonight. Where are we staying?”
  “The Piper’s Hearth, Princess. It’s good to have you back.”
  “It’s good to be back.” She answered with a deep smile, and left it at that, walking out the door they’d come in into the busy streets, sparkling jewelry and silk dress gleaming in the bright afternoon sun.

  “Liege?” Herkam turned his scorn on the prince. The one word managed to say with incredible effectiveness: ‘What the hell was that?’
  Gust just shook his head. Just as well saying: ‘I know I screwed up so just shut up and leave me alone.’
  Vistan slowly rose when she had left the cafeteria, draping his hood over his face and sighing in contented peace. He knew he had every right to speak to her, tell her how he had saved her life, but he did not believe that. A stronger part of him felt that he didn’t merit the slightest part of her attention, company, or time. If he had been guarding the camp like Hydrosphere, he could have done something for her, instead it was Laura and Hydrosphere who saved that day. The Kingdom of Water. His Kingdom had abandoned her for that slightest amount of time, and this was the result. He had abandoned her, just for some cherished time alone in the peaceful night of this broad, grand land. A bastard, caring more for his happiness than a Princess’ life, the only person who could save the lives of everyone in the Kingdom of Wind. . .and Uranus himself. Green eyes gleamed, looking up at the roof of the building, knowing that beyond that lay his Patron, a Patron and a prophecy--
  “Vistan.” Herkam barked irritatedly. “After all that about leaving you behind, are you going to stand there like a tree all over again?”
  “Sorry.” Vistan muttered, unperturbed. He bent to gather up his staff, and followed the rest of the party out the front door. Laura. Where was she? Why did she hate that other assassin? Who was the better? But again, he could not imagine questioning Laura’s decisions or learning more about her. No one that beautiful should be bothered by the likes of him. Fisher seemed to be able to ask anything of anyone. Let him do it.
  “Vistan?” Gust said from atop his horse.
  “Would you like to ride with me? You seem to have no way home.”
  “I beg your pardon, lord.” Vistan bowed under the weight of his kindness. He did not deserve such a prince. “I have a spell that will see me home promptly.”
  Gust raised an eyebrow in surprise. How can he be learning new spells without Lars? “When did this come about?” Gust asked.
  “It’s all coming back to me, sire. I think I’m remembering more things every day. Like that translation thing. I’m getting better without even working at it.”
  “ ‘As the alignment nears, the elements of Wind and Water will become progressively more powerful. This is the only time such a magic as the spell to meld two elements could be worked, and only by the greatest of wizards.’” Gust recited softly. They had thought the wizard would be Lars at the time, but Gust wondered if Uranus had had other plans all along.
  Herkam coughed, and Gust shook his head to banish the extraneous thoughts. “Very well. See you at the Piper’s Hearth tonight, then.” Fisher, Gust, and Herkam made their way into a major street, and faded from view. Vistan sat down on the steps of the Hospital, and smiled a secret smile, sparks in his eyes. Cherishing the memory of the Princess, radiant in diamonds and silk. He’d never dreamed Gale was that gorgeous. If he’d never seen Laura, he could have sworn it was the most perfect form under all the heavens. It angered him, that he could not give her that title. That someone was better than her in this. If he really loved her, he’d think her more beautiful than Laura. But instead, this vision of her glory will last for an hour or two, and then I’ll go to the inn and it will all be splintered into obscurity under the splendour of the other. A woman so divine that her presence brought light to the darkness, wonder to every man, woman, and child’s eye, and the calm of peace into their souls. No, Gale in a dress could never match that. I have been too spoiled. He thought, sadly. I will never worship another, when they all look as paper rags, filthy perversions of the one, true angel. What once was beautiful is now plain. There is only one beautiful woman now.
*  *  *  *
  Laura breathed softly through her veil, perched atop a building as she watched the dying sun. It hadn’t gone well. Across the seemingly endless vista of Dayton, one person could sink into shadows so deep no one would ever find him. So many people was making her uncomfortable, anyway. How could you tell, how could you ever know if they were all loyal to the Kingdom of Water? How many spies could be reporting her location even now?
  That made her jump, all senses to full alert. What if she was being hunted too? If she was, she couldn’t tell, or do anything about it. She had always been a couple steps behind him, retracing his curvaceous route all across the city, seeming to have no logic or rhythm behind it. It was as if the other could fly, he went so fast. . .
  It angered her, that someone was defeating her without even knowing he was being hunted. As if she were a child throwing a tantrum, something to be ignored as one went along his daily business. His daily business of slitting those children’s throats. But it was not over yet. When assassins collide, one must kill, and one must die. It was just the nature of things. Lastair, for some reason, was connected to their group, and he would undoubtedly approach them again, and then he was hers. Then he dies, and this memory of failure will seep away in the cooling stream of his blood.
  Laura reached up and deftly pulled her veil off, letting the cooler air at this height wash over her. It was time to stop thinking on it, and for the first time enjoy the sunset of purples and reds. She watched the sun with a smile, feeling a sort of giddy victory over it. You thought yourself so brilliant to behold that none may look you in the eye, but see how you’ve faded, and I have grown, and see how I can stare at you until your end. She wondered if Gale was alright. Of course she was, Hydrosphere was with her. She had to be okay. If she had abandoned Gale simply to kill a foe, and thus caused her death by not being there to protect her, she would not be able to live with such a crime. She would slit her wrists, and hope to go to Hell as her reward. Gale was her only friend, her only companion, and Gale was the lives of everyone in the entire kingdom, all the humans, Neptunians, and their very Patron’s. Gale would probably be back at the inn, everyone would be waiting up on her. Did the Princess know what was going on? Would they have told her? Probably not, which was for the better. Just a night out. A chance to be alone. . . If she brought up Lastair’s presence, Gale would have nightmares, and scream out in terror until she bit her tongue until it bled, and then wail in her arms the rest of the night, and the next night, and the next.
  She would protect her. As long as she had a drop of life in her body, she would shelter her from this. Make sure she need never confront the demon of her past. So Gale would be worrying, and would ask her where she’d been, and she would lie and state the very poignant truth that she was exhausted, and they would all go to bed and it would be forgotten. What a wonderful excuse, sleeping! It made her smile, as twin violet mirrors shone in the reflected glory of the setting sun. She stood there like a living incarnation of Venus, radiant, utterly graceful, and with the spark of joy blazing through her, breaking out of her in a smile that made flowers bloom and the birds sing. There was more to things than just killing your enemies, she decided. For if you can not love your life, then you might as well be dead. If your life is trying to kill them, then they have already won, for they’ve already ripped out your soul.
  With that, she deftly hopped off the building, landing silently in a crouch on the empty alleyway two stories below. Making her way through the thinning crowds, it was a very short and uneventful trip to the Piper’s Hearth, and the door loomed before her in weary relief. Had there been a day yet that she had not been forced to stave off sleep? Curse all wizards, anyway. Why the hell did they not have to suffer like the rest of humanity? So she pushed her way through the folding double-doors, and saw Herkam polishing his armour lackadaisically, hardly sparing a glance at the most beautiful creation under the heavens. The sound of a harp, and singing, streamed from the common room, and the tunes caught at her heart.
  “Prince Gust.” Herkam explained without ever lifting his head. “The rest are there, too. Waiting for you.”
  Laura frowned. Always the armsmaster found ways to rebuke you, without ever saying anything in rebuke. By nearly stating facts, he could make everyone feel like the clumsiest, most selfish, stupid person on the planet. It vexed her, because the only way he could do that is if somewhere inside she already blamed herself. That somewhere inside her, she had felt wrong in abandoning the others to do her duty, what any assassin would expect of her. But the thoughts drifted away as she was caught up in the music, a song of the lofty peaks covered in snow the year around in the Kingdom of Wind, and with it a feeling of pride. As she entered quietly, it was this feeling of intense pride and admiration for these mountains that perplexed her. After all, they were not of her kingdom. Why should she feel proud of things she was in no way connected to? But soon all thoughts drifted away under the soothing river of his voice. In all her years at the palace, with access to the greatest musicians, this single harp surpassed them all.
. . .and the stars cast down their rays,
across the valley of time and space,
a blaze of glory ‘cross the snowy peaks,
Gems, sparkling in the heavens, eternal.”
  The harp dwindled mournfully into a silence of awed onlookers. A man coughed, ashamed at how poetry and music had moved him so. Others wore the same looks, as if confused at what had just happened. Some dabbed tears from their eyes, shimmering in admiration at the Bard before them.
  Gust did not notice any of it, he grappled for the Deepsong, fought and tore for the music of life that the city had dwindled so far. Had he done it? Had he conveyed the feeling? Could he do it again? Gods, but he was so drained. Pride. I gave them pride in the Valley of Music. I wanted them to be proud to hold the most beautiful land in the world, though they did not. He decided to play another song, to wipe away the memory of his tampering, to wipe away the strain of melding the Deepsong into his melodies. A lullaby:
In the shadows of the moon,
there is a dream.
Of verdant, rolling hills,
meadows of fragrant blossoms,
a placid lake, mirror to the sky,
and a rushing stream,
crafted of starlight and moonbeams,
an everlasting flow of peace,
bringing you back to the blazing sun,
and back into my arms, safe, and home.”

  Gust rose from the window, and bowed. “To all a good night, and Uranus bless all those who have served and sheltered us these days past.”
  The fluid German rolled across the crowd and through, leaving no more understanding than before. Gust grew perplexed, then looked at his harp. The entire time he’d been singing, all that time the audience didn’t understand a single word! Yet they had been touched, and that meant their minds had been pulled into the music, for otherwise they would have drawn away from the foreign words, and not cared. Which meant the Deepsong did work. That he would have to betray her. . .
  “He says: ‘Rest well, and Neptune thanks you for the comfort of these days gone by.’” Gale interpreted. German and English did not adhere word for word, so she could only content herself with the same message in a rougher form. She hoped he would not be angry with her. She’d never heard something so beautiful, and she had been so proud of him. Maybe they could finally get to know each other, instead of riding together virtually betrothed and not exchanging a single word. The crowd around them began to dissipate, people going to their inn rooms or leaving for home. Soon, only five people remained. Vistan made a polite cough, murmuring a goodnight to whomever that listened, and Fisher followed right after. Gust gave Laura an odd look, almost questioning, and Laura barely shook her head. Gale watched the undercurrents, wondering what had gone on while she lay dead. Oh Neptune, had they actually. . .? Is that why she’s avoiding me? The moment she thought it she bashed it down emphatically. Hydrosphere and his stupid jokes had been getting to her. Laura would never do that. She’d never even had a friend, much less. . . Then why are they hiding things from me?
  “What?” Gust asked. “What’s that look for?”
  “Nothing!” Gale snapped, trying to stop from blushing. Why did he have to be so observant? “Can’t I be with Laura alone, now, after all this time that she’s tended to me?” Of course, she wasn’t really alone, Hydrosphere was a cloud hovering at the roof, but that hardly counted.
  “Of course,” Gust said, trying to hide his irritation. He was a prince, and she had just dismissed him like. . .like a servant. But there was nothing she could do about that now. He’d probably forget all about it by the time he woke up anyway.
  The silence seemed to be magnified with his absence, and the two women gazed at each other, each trying to summon the right words. Laura gave up, and instead flung her arms around Gale and hugged her tightly, slight tears streaming down her cheeks. “Oh, Neptune. Oh, Gale, I almost lost you. How could I ever go on without you?”
  “You saved my life. You can’t blame yourself for anything. I’m the one to blame. Please don’t feel too guilty to be my friend again.” Gale would have cried herself, except she had been doing that so much today that it was hard to summon them.
  “I swear my death will come before yours, Bringer of the Tides. My body is your shield, my hand your blade.” Laura knelt with infinite grace, and kissed Gale’s hand to bind the ancient oath. Gale bit her lip, having no idea what to say. Why did these people follow her, when all of them were so much better than her? All she had done was sit helpless as they all barely lived trying to protect her. She didn’t deserve this, even if she was the only one who could reach Spa. No one should sacrifice themselves for her.
  “That’s different.” Gale retorted. He didn’t have to read her mind.
  Laura cast a glance upwards, and grimaced. “Perhaps you would like to spend some time with Neptune, Princess. I’m exhausted, and it will be an early beginning tomorrow.” She rose, a swan unfolding wings and neck to gaze at the sky, and made her way up the stairs.
  “Laura.” Gale cried out, pleadingly, and the ninja wrapped in black silk turned back to her. “Laura, I’m sorry. You know I love you.”
  Laura nodded, giving a sad smile. “There is nothing to forgive. Goodnight.”
*  *  *  *
  Xe-har glowered at the city with hatred. The Kunoichi had driven him out of it, making him break the code of an assassin, stripping him of his honour. She had no right to test him so! He growled in livid rage, tail twitching as black eyes widened. If she had been with the others, he would have killed her. If he ever saw her again, he did not know if he could stop from ripping out her throat. He would have to start sleeping in the night and waking by day, as in the past, but that was no hardship he could not endure. The other draconians would disband him from the Clan. He would be a Ronin, if they ever found out about this day. How could he ever face them, after a cowardice of this magnitude? Not cowardice! Practicality! If one must deal with the Devil to achieve his ends, then you deal with it, achieve your end, and then slay that Devil. She would die. But there was another he hated more, more than everything else in the world, and this was the only way to destroy him. There were many ways to kill, but this was the only way to destroy him. With that, Xe-har closed his eyes and folded his wings, willing Venus to forgive her child, forgive him of all his sins, and love him still.

Chapter 12. The Spirit’s End.
  Lastair watched Bernardino rebuke his commanders for their wasteful attention to logistics, ordering one of his own family removed from command to be replaced by a more able general, someone who had some idea of how much it costs to keep an army in the field and how many more die from disease than anything else in warfare if the camps are not kept clean and orderly. The King seemed to know everything, especially to those with eyes lowered, flinching at the sight of the most powerful man in the world upon his ruby throne in all his wrath every time they dared to raise them. Lastair’s eyes did not concentrate on the scene before him, though, as they constantly surveyed the antechamber for any sign of threat or danger. His eyes never ceased to wander, going over the same attendants and advisors, mages and bodyguards that had been serving the king for years, lest one of them be a traitor ready to kill. Lastair was practically invisible in his deep black cloak, even those who knew of him could not have spotted him stretched languidly against the pillar, a shade of retribution against any who would raise their hand against the King of Fire. This was his place. This was what Venus had asked him to do. Protecting the savior of the world against the evils of human greed and stupidity. To be his shadow.
  Bernardino had ordered away his men in disgust, ordering wine and women to help him forget the constant toil of his office. It was then that a courier entered the room, allowed to enter without question, as it bore the seal of the King’s cousin, Admiral of Fire. The courier kneeled and offered the message to the King, who opened it quickly, his eyes widening upon reading the message. The courier brandished a dagger and leaped for the King’s throat--and Lastair was there in an instant, as if not even needing to move, he had been lounging against the pillar and now he was here, gripping the man’s knife wrist with all his strength, stopping it a mere inch from the King’s throat. Everyone else had disappeared, they had been laughing a moment before, as if this was all a very funny scene.
  Bernardino gulped, then looked at his most loyal servant. “You saved my life, Lastair. I’ve always trusted you with it. I trust you with everything. Venus trusts in you, believes in you. With you by my side, we will unite the world in peace and prosperity.”
  Then Lastair smiled, and let go of the assassin, stepping out of the way and motioning to the courier that it was alright to keep going. The laughing seemed to come from all around him.
  Without a moment’s hesitation, the courier drove the dagger through Bernardino’s heart, and he convulsed in agony, his eyes glazing over with a look of shock, of confusion, at his confidant, who had forsaken him, and let him die. The blood seemed to cover the world. . .
  Lastair screamed. His eyes madly struggled to open, to reassure him that none of it was real, his hands clawed at his face to make him stop, to make it stop, and his throat ruptured from the strain, and he coughed up blood. Coughing and panting, crawling across the ground to the nearby stream, the visions boiled in his mind, and he could not see the ground before him. Plunging his head into the icy rush of the water, the sheer shock managed to stop the flow of images spinning over and over through his head, and for a blessed moment his mind was overwhelmed by his senses. Seizing the moment with a death grip on his sanity, Lastair fought for another day, another second that would cease him from slitting his own throat where he lay. The blood mingled with the waters, slick against his oily scales, and Xe-har lay on the grass, sobbing so strong that his body shook violently. He had killed him. He had killed him! Mother forgive me I killed your saviour, I left, after he told me not to, I left him to die and it’s my fault because I forsook my oaths and now I’m nothing more than a whining dog. . .
*  *  *  *
  Ricardo petted the giant cat’s head that was level with the throne. A tiger, all the way from across the Pacific, as a reminder of The Kingdom of Earth’s continued good will. Eventually Earth would have to be dealt with, Ricardo mused, but this tiger was certainly amusing in the meantime. The man standing across from him did not think it amusing in the least, his gaze barely remaining on Ricardo as was proper, every so often his eyes darting in terror at the purring, exotic creature to see if it was attacking. If the man did not stumble over his words so much, to the point that it had become irksome to even follow, he would have found the situation very amusing.
  “The army re--requests humb--bly for. . .” The tiger stretched and the man gasped, nearly swallowing his tongue.
  That was enough, Ricardo decided, gesturing to his guards in frustration. “I will hear their requests as soon as the Army has the courage to face their King.” The Army was a pathetic blend of wretched commoners and filthy Venusians, not like the Navy. An admiral would have given a smile at the magnificent creature and report another decisive victory over the West Indies, which had always been a warren of pirates and Neptunians. An admiral would have seen to the prompt movement and dispersion of their Corsairs, surrounding and obliterating the forces of the Kingdom of Water in half the time it had taken for the Army to simply reform their battle lines and advance back into Texas.
  Which was why, of course, Ricardo had taken the greater part of the funding away from the army and back into the building of the grandest armada the world had ever seen. A fleet that would blockade the entire Kingdom of Water, cut them off, and choke them to death. For without trade, without money, without food, what army could stand against them? Yes, a blockade to choke the life out of their foe, and the scum Venusians to hold them up for as long as necessary, and when he loosed the Stalkers again Venus in all her glory would come to this world and declare it her own, and would declare him her bravest and most loyal servant, and maybe even kiss him. . . .
  The Archmage of Fire coughed slightly, hazel eyes betraying nothing under a hooded face. The Archmage of Wind would be out battling for his Kingdom, but of course his archmage had to turn out to be the most cowardly, useless worm ever to assume the title. The last Archmage had defeated elementals, but this one? This one hid behind surnames and other wizards, hid behind the entire Kingdom, and then dared to enter his throne room unannounced! Ricardo’s lip curled in disgust. “What is it?”
  The Archmage did not look in the least perturbed by the king’s new pet. Ricardo suspected the Archmage could, with the snap of his finger, slay every last tiger left in the world at this very moment. Such was the strength of Fire, Venus’s breath so near and beautiful, its light pouring from the heavens in a torrent every moment of the day. “Sire, our Spirit reports disturbing news.”
  “Go on.” Ricardo almost laughed at the Archmage’s graveness. As if any group of people had ever survived the trek to Spa. As if this were any threat to the Kingdom of Fire. An amusing diversion, after all the affairs of State, a chance to see how puny and helpless his foes really were before he fell asleep, that was all it was, and he had disturbing news?
  “The Princess of Water is alive and well, and they are continuing on their trip westward.”
  Ricardo frowned. Alive? “Do we know their final destination?”
  “Not as yet, Sire. Except Spa, of course.” As if that word were supposed to scare him. Yes, this Archmage for all his power had lost much in the way of wits.
  “It seems they are taking their merry time about it, at least. How many days in Dayton? Surely enough for the assassination squad to have pinned them down.”
  “Sire, the Spirit tracks their every moment, and will report instantly on a judicious moment for the Venusians, but they have taken losses, and are depleted.”
  “Weren’t they told to travel in secrecy?”
  “The Kingdom of Water is a vast and wild land, my lord.”
  “Tell them there are no excuses for failure. Tell them not to expect to come back without one of their heads.”
  “I will tell them, Lord. But now that you know where they are, and that they are well, may I suggest you devote more to the end of this absurd game?”
  Ricardo smiled as one does when they know more than the one across from them, or at least believe they do. “Aren’t we forgetting their secret weapon? It strikes down anyone, anywhere, without any way to avoid it. You just. . .die. I can not afford to pit you against the likes of that.” Ricardo thrilled at the sight of the Archmage’s irritation. The Archmage had tried to decipher the strange weapon, and failed, claiming it was not magical and thus no longer under his jurisdiction. It had been so long ago that most of the Kingdom of Fire’s officers had long forgotten it.
  “I did not suggest sending in a Mage, your concerns are quite right. However, if a meteor were to suddenly fall from the skies directly on top of them. . .” The Archmage seemed willing to try, though Ricardo had only heard of such magics coming from Elementals. Maybe the man did have a backbone in him, somewhere. It did not seem right, though. Like some incredible anticlimax that would spoil the entire war thereafter. Sure, you won, Neptune would argue, but only because you cheated. Yes, even Venus would think this a cheap tactic. Besides, no direct magical attack using Fire could be expected to work on an elemental of Water, the direct opposite. A pet elemental! The thought still blew his mind. Imagine a Stalker lying like his Tiger chained to his throne, fetching grapes at his beck and call. He still did not know how the Kingdom of Water had done it. Perhaps their elementals were far weaker. Perhaps magic really could work against them, then. . .
  “How many resources would it require to effect such a thing?”
  The Archmage bowed a little deeper than necessary. “I shall take it upon myself, Lord.” With the spirit to guide his vision, and Venus flowing through his veins, surely they would all be ashes by the end of the month.
*  *  *  *
  Herkam’s blade sang between the Prince’s patterns, splitting their woven shield and sending Gust’s sword flying from his hand. “You started repeating.” Herkam spoke in crisp rebuke. “Any pattern can be broken, you must always be changing, so that the other can discern nothing, and thus give you the initiative.”
  “But if I’m always shifting stances how can I ever attack?” Gust complained, wiping his brow and retrieving his wooden lathes.
  “You incorporate the pattern into the attack. You weave the same shield, except this time five yards closer.”
  Gust muttered something, but did not complain further. Obviously Herkam knew what he was doing, because Gust had lost for the eighth time in the session, and it had not been fifteen minutes yet. He had been trained with the sword by Perigon himself, in the days when he sought to become a Battle Mage with his closest friend, but it seemed none of that was worth anything against a Blademaster. If he could do this to him, what could he do against the common soldier? No matter how many years, how good you are, what armour you wear, a sword can only kill one person at a time, and no sword can stave off nine others simultaneously. Whenever possible, fight against only one at a time, put yourself in a corner or a narrow confine, and let them get in to each other’s way. The more there are, the less room their blade has. This is your only chance. As Herkam’s prior lectures rolled over him, Gust brought his blade smoothly into guard position, observing Herkam’s every motion and responding to it just as subtly. It was a dance. And Herkam’s blade, at least, sang.
  The attack was a blizzard of motion and strength, and as Gust’s arms quivered from the first parry he slid fluidly to the side, disrupting the planned attack that would have had him on the ground three seconds later Herkam had woven. Gust hardly had time to raise his sword again, though, before Herkam had spun on the toe of his boot and slammed his blade downwards against it. The blow felt like a hammer against his sword, but he resolved to hold it, to keep his hand on the blade at all costs. Which meant instead of having his blade whiz away through the air into the forest again, Gust was driven to the ground. Somewhere distantly he heard a sickening crack, and then a black wave of pain that forced a scream from his mouth, but he--had--to--hold--on--just--once. . .
  Hydrosphere was there in an instant, a small globe of water popping into existence from the air around them, but it spun idly. There was no enemy, only two swordsmen, one on his knees, an arm hanging limply at the elbow that had a deathgrip around his hilt, the other cursing madly at his stupid pupil for managing such a feat of idiocy. “Damn you! What have I been teaching you? Do you ever listen? What stunt is this? How can you learn when you do this to yourself!”
  Gust gave Herkam a ghastly grin, his soft whisper ten times as loud as Herkam’s shouts. “I just wanted you to be proud of me. Just once, I wanted someone to be proud.”
  Hydrosphere spun silently, the only witness to the scene.
  “No one is impressed by boys who pick fights with grown men. You have to know your limits.” Herkam’s voice was no longer a shout, though, but one with compassion. Even hurt, hurt to see his Prince with his arm hanging horribly askew condemning himself for a useless, embarrassing weight everyone else had to make up for.
  “Herkam.” Gust hissed between pain-clenched teeth. “Would you have let go?”
  “This is different.” The Armsmaster objected. “You’re in training. It’s alright to lose. You don’t have to make these sacrifices.”
  Gust laughed, but it sounded so full of self-loathing and hysteria, that it chilled the armsmaster to the bone. “I want to make a sacrifice. Only I can’t. Because there’s nothing to sacrifice. Everyone else sacrifices things for me, but I can never do the same. Because I’m the Prince.”
  A few seconds later Laura was there with a vial of water, and Gust’s clenched face slowly relaxed, and the pain became only a memory. The miracle of the Lakes. Gale was there moments later, looking first toward Hydrosphere to find out what was going on before asking Gust if he was okay. She didn’t trust his answer. No, he would have said it was nothing, and told her he’d suffered worse falling down the stairs. So she only asked out of courtesy, and trusted Hydrosphere to tell her the truth of things.
  “I’m sorry.” Gust gave in reply. He was sorry he had screamed, he was sorry he hadn’t let himself be humiliated by his last friend again, he was sorry he could not use a sword, or his magic, or sing like a bard, or make the forest creatures die for the good of the Kingdom, because he loved them too much . He was sorry they had all at some point risked death for him, and throughout he had remained untouched, and he had never contributed to their success. He was sorry Uranus ever chose him to save his people. He was sorry he had ever been born.
  “Don’t be.” Gale rebuked, putting her hand hesitatingly on his freshly healed arm. “I didn’t even know you practiced with the sword.” She said to relieve the tension.
  “Whenever Herkam can find the time. I don’t need to sleep that often, after all, and I don’t want to depend on magic. Sometimes there’s not enough time, or not enough energy, or you want to stay inconspicuous, or a thousand different situations, and in those places I will be glad to own a sword.”
  “By Neptune, is there anything you aren’t skilled in?” Gale spoke in awed disbelief.
  Gust managed a slight smile, the warmth of her hand still resting on his arm. “Skilled is not the term I would use.” Gale realized what that smile was, and for the first time looked at him with fear. He wasn’t laughing at himself, he was apologizing for his very existence. So many things were conveyed in that single sickly curve of his lips, so many things left unspoken that she could hear. It was the single most terrifying look she had ever seen on someone’s face. Shaking her head to clear her mind, she said something noncommittal and left him so she could think. Why does he hate himself? And then. . . What can I do? Hydrosphere spun silently beside her.
*  *  *  *
  Xe-har unfurled his wings and leaped into the sky, gradually gaining altitude as he circled his camp and located his enemies. Around ten miles away lay the Prince and his party, and somewhere near fluttered the Spirit, always keeping its distance, yet always transmitting all that went on for the Kingdom of Fire. Xe-har mused that only their location in the heart of their own Kingdom had kept them alive so far, and it seemed even that had been a matter of luck. As long as the spirit lived, any assassin, spellcaster, or stealthy Venusians could strike. If they ever even reached the Kingdom of Earth, their lives would be forfeit immediately. For their quest to succeed, such a thing must die. For them to accept him as one of them, he had to prove himself loyal and essential. He had had to think far back to his days when he lived amongst his clan, when the wisest elders had taught him the world he had been brought into full-grown. He had been so lost, back then, but the others had told him of Venus, and the ways of magic, and how he and all the others came to be. The secret to the Spirit’s destruction lay in those long buried memories.
Yes, brother?”
I saw in the wild today, a miniature deer. It had spots, and was slow and weak, but the other deer died protecting it. Why would they care about a little brother so much?
Ny-tsar smiled, pleased with the little brother’s curiosity and perceptiveness. “You have touched upon a great, fundamental difference between us and the creatures we live beside, Xe-har. You see, what you saw there was not a brother, but a child.”
We are all children of Venus.” Xe-har stated proudly, having just learned that two weeks before. The world had made so much more sense after that.
We Draconians are all children of Venus, but those deer lived long before Venus ever did. They have their own children.” Ny-tsar corrected crisply.
Their own children? But how? Why?” Xe-har managed to ask, his mind spinning madly as it tried to assimilate such an unbelievable concept.
A brother and a sister come together to make a child. The child comes from out of the sister, but it has to be very small and undeveloped so as not to kill the sister-mother when it comes out. It takes many years for the child to become a brother or a sister. It usually never does these days.”
But that’s so. . . stupid! All those years so weak and useless, and all the strong and useful brothers and sisters have to spend all their power simply to take care of them? How can they possibly survive?”
They run, and hide, and eat plants and such that can’t fight back. It is very hard, but because it has been so very hard to live for so very long, all of them that are left are very good at surviving. Because of the many children they have, they evolve into better creations, whereas we stay the same all our years until we die.”
Because they are so stupid, they improve. And because we are so smart, we stagnate? Why would Venus do that?”
Now you have found an even larger secret. Though we are children of Venus, she never chose to have us. She never designed our species. Her blessing flows all across the world, bringing life and beauty from its power, but the magical force that issues from her decides what type of life emerges from it. Like light.”
The magic of the sun?” Xe-har asked, completely confused though his brain was as apt as any other’s.
Ny-tsar smiled fondly at the other’s foolishness, and continued. “The sun gives off light. Venus gives off magic. But the properties of light and magic are much the same. Magic and light both travel in waves, or radiation, through space, only landing sometimes on the surface of our planet. It is because Venus is so near that so much of this radiation reaches Earth, and turns into potential energy.”
Potential? How can things possibly have energy in the future if they don’t have any energy right now?” Xe-har was still trying to figure out what radiation was, but he wasn’t about to show how shameful he really was.
There are two types of energy in the universe. Potential and kinetic. In the case of magic, potential energy is constantly shining into and saturating our world. When there is enough potential energy, it overpowers the fundamental laws of the universe and turns into kinetic energy. Energy that is happening right now, like you and me. We have so much magic in us that we turned into kinetic energy instead of potential.”
If it takes so much energy to overpower Nature, why do we live so long? Why don’t we run out all of a sudden, and poof out of existence?”
Because, you see, we are constantly being renewed by the potential energy all around us. That is why we need food and water and air to sustain us. But our essence, the source of our energy and our very life, is that constant magical radiation that our bodies suck into ourselves. In a way, all the children of Venus are ways Nature have found to control and funnel the forces of magic into harmless and useful constructs. Instead of potential energy erupting into a giant fireball, all the children of Venus suck up the magic, and there is a balance of potential and kinetic energy.”
So right now I’m killing all the brothers and sisters that someday could come to be, by using up all their energy for myself?”
There simply isn’t enough magic to support many more brothers and sisters. In the past, when the magic had slowly been accumulating for billions of years, there was so much energy that thousands of Venusians were created, even elementals. The entire world was alive and crawling with magic so strong that anything could have been done. And many times was.”
Meteors falling from the sky. . .” Xe-har remembered his lessen on the powers of the other children. “So even though the magic keeps coming, we’re using it up a lot faster, and only this reserve is keeping us alive? How long will there be a reserve?”
Ny-tsar nodded at the speed of the other’s mind. “We really don’t know. Maybe thousands of years. Maybe only a few more. Magical energy may not lose much, though, for it is recycled over and over. Whenever the kinetic form is disrupted, it reverts to potential, to be changed back into kinetic energy whenever there is enough once more.”
So whenever one of us dies, we are reincarnated?” Xe-har marveled, wondering who he had been in past lives, and who he would be in the future. Maybe a hero who would save the world. . .
No. Because whenever the kinetic form is lost, it dissipates back into the air and soil in an explosion of fire, which also uses up a lot of the potential energy. So the form might return to kinetic, but as an Imp or a Gremlin instead of a Draconian.”
So each Venusian has a different level of kinetic energy?”
Exactly! Again, like light, there are different amplitudes of potential energy which each change into different kinetic forms. That is why Venusians are so varied. We could be described as visible light. Very similar, but all different enough to become an entirely unique form from all the others. On one end of the spectrum, the weakest end, would be the spirits, and on the other end, the strongest end, would be the Elementals. So we’re all related, all children of Venus, but all of us different, according to the amount of potential energy used to create us.”
What spectrum? What light can we not see?” Again, Ny-tsar had lost him.
Visible light. Orange, green, blue, yellow, purple, red, indigo and such. The spectrum of light determines what kind of colour we see. But there are other colours we can’t even see, but can still exist. Radiation travels in all sorts of waves, alpha, beta, and gamma, x-rays, microwaves, infra-red, ultra-violet. . . You see how there are so many different variations of light the sun casts off? Just so is magic varied across a spectrum, and we Venusians are in the center.”
Do deer come in spectrums?” Xe-har asked desperately, trying to remember how he’d gotten into this conversation.
No. They do not come from magic. They each evolved into their different types of life by finding out which was the most suitable form in their environment and slowly becoming that form. They are much more complex than us.”
Xe-har began to digest what Ny-tsar had said earlier, and his completely developed mind brought up something ominous. “You say that when we die we might come back as something else. But what if we got drained of a lot of magic, or too much magic was brought into us, would we change while we still lived? Could I suddenly become an Orc?” Xe-har shuddered at the thought. To be so brainless and slow. . .
Your system makes sure you never take too little or too much magic, but if something outside of yourself forces a lot of potential energy into you, or takes a lot of your kinetic energy away--”
We mutate!” Xe-har finished off with a chill running down his spine.
No. Our form fights to remain as it is very hard, it doesn’t like to try to overrule the laws of nature all over again, it wants to stay stable. So if too much energy is put into it, we simply dissolve, and all of us turn into potential energy to return as something else. Again, a lot of energy is lost in the explosion of such a thing.”
If I step into a region that hasn’t been sapped off of for a while, then I’ll explode?” This was getting to be very frightening.
Probably not. Being in the center of the spectrum, it is very hard to steal away our kinetic forms. We are very complex and strong. Elementals who have been drained of magic for centuries are still elementals they are so stable. Weakness such as what you describe can only be found in spirits. They barely overruled nature in the first place, so just a little bit of magic in either direction can ruin their fragile balance and make them dissolve. So far that’s the only way we know that a spirit can be destroyed.”
But if the potential energy still--”
  Many long hours such as that had taught him much of this world, and it was very hard to remember all of it, but he remembered that idle comment that he’d barely found worth comprehending at the time. “That’s the only way we know that a spirit can be destroyed.” At the time, he’d been worrying if magical radiation, like light, only came during the day and he would dissolve during the night if he slept in a civilized area. He’d never believed a day would come when he had to kill a spirit. But there it was, and he thanked Ny-tsar a thousand times for his foresight and wisdom those many years ago. Caressing the smooth surface of a fire sphere, he knew that the explosion of magical energy would easily dissolve the form of the Spirit into a harmless pool of magic, perhaps some of which he’d use to maintain his own body. The spirit would recognize him as a fellow child of Venus, and never fear what was coming. Xe-har wore a satisfied grin as he tore through the sky.
  His arrow-straight flight was disrupted, though, when another black-scaled, graceful Draconian burst through the clouds before him. The small crest on her head and her sharply angled face displayed her femininity, so Xe-har cut short his flight and pulled back into a swoop beside her. The wind streamed against and around him, his wings and tail moving expertly to match her speed.
  “Xe-har, I mourn for you, as do we all. We have been sent to finish the job you began, but I see you are heading for them, so we will defer to you if that is your wish.”
  “Sly-fier, I mourn for you and miss your company. How is the clan?”
  “Our source of honour is now our source of shame, Xe-har, we serve a cockroach when once we served a leopard. The other clans scorn us and steal our lands.”
  “And do you still wish to serve this man? Are you intent on seeing his will done?”
  “It is our intent to kill these people who threaten our Mother, yes. It grieves me that it serves his purposes as well, but it is my duty.”
  “I beg of you, sister, to not do this thing. To report failure or something, and forsake this murderer who sits on the throne. I hope for these people to succeed, not to harm Mother, but him. The Gods do not wish to kill Venus, merely to survive. I would let them die, save only that Ricardo would then flourish, and rule the world. Who knows what evils he will accomplish when there is no one to stand against him?”
  “Do not beg, brother, I honour you above all others. If you wish for this so, then I will give way. Why, then, are you descending on these people you have now allied with?”
  “They are being watched. I head now to deal with that which has been giving you their location, and any other potential killer.”
  “That is wise.” Sly-fier nodded her head in comprehension. “Then I beg of you something in return: Live, and bring honour back to us all.”
  The wind ripped the tears from Xe-har’s eyes. “Tell my sisters and brothers, that you need not beg. There is no shame in you. Tell them that shadows have an odd way of haunting those who bask in fire.”
  “Farewell, Xe-har.” Sly-fier quickly brought out a topaz bracelet and offered it to him. “To remember us by.” Her taloned fingers gently took his arm and fastened it around his arm. Then she pulled in her wings and dived beneath the clouds.
*  *  *  *
  Tolerance. Understanding. Peace. I must soften their emotions. Expunging them would leave too much of a gap, but I must soften them. Their hate, their pain, I must ease these into small mounds, and then let tolerance seep in, make it feel like it was their own decision. I must be quick, so they don’t notice, and it must be on both of them. Don’t fail don’t fail don’t fail for Uranus’ sake and all your people don’t falter or hesitate. Betray her or betray your Kingdom, betray her Kingdom. Remember this is for us all. Remember this is the only way. Remember how close she came to dying last time. The Deepsong is strong here, I can hear it. . . so beautiful. . .
  Prince! Behind you!” Gust’s eyes snapped open in panic, as Herkam threw his horse bodily inbetween his Prince and the band of Neptunians racing at him. Spinning his horse expertly he found his own sword comfortably resting in his newly-healed arm. It twinged with the memories of the morning, but his mind could not devote enough time to memory now. They’d lost enough time as it was. No time for a spell. No time for a song. No time to think!
  The phantasms hardly seemed to be of this world, with only a vague figure of shining blue skin. Though they never changed position, they still came at a sprint toward Gust and his Armsmaster. His eyes darted across the eerily silent enemies and then to the rest of his party, who seemed to be encased in heavy air, all their motions exaggerated and incredibly slow, as if they were trapped. . .
  Then they were upon him, and he let his blade sing. Their horses whinnied in terror, rearing and rolling their eyes, but Herkam flowed like mercury, seemingly independent of his mount, his tongue of steel existing in three different places at once. Something smashed into his thigh, and Gust let his sword sweep across his left side in retaliation. A ball of cold water burst onto his horse, which spooked and hurdled itself forward, leaving Herkam alone with maybe seven more phantasms hacking into him. Gust cursed, spinning his horse just in time to skewer another shining form, and then eight icicles sprouted from eight phantasms’ hearts, and a gush of water splattered onto the forest floor. Hydrosphere or Gale had cast the spell within ten seconds, but it had felt like an eternity. Sweat mingled with the cold splash of the dead on his skin, and his thigh felt like it was on fire. He had been wearing a modicum of armour, but it felt like a severe bruise was forming. If he aggravated it any further his entire leg would stiffen up for a week, and it would hurt like all hell in the meantime.
  Herkam was already there with a vial of healing water, forcing it down Gust’s throat until he drank the entire thing instead of choking. Even then, the armsmaster checked for any possible wound that could have escaped the unreliable magic, obviously deciding that whatever Gust’s opinion of his injuries were didn’t matter in the least. The rest of the party was there in a moment, a chastened Vistan held his bright green eyes to the ground, and Fisher radiantly patted the two men on their backs, exclaiming on their wondrous prowess with the sword. Gale looked annoyed at Gust’s consumption of yet another precious flask of the Great Lakes, and Laura bent to retrieve the dagger she had pricked one of the phantasms like a bubble with. It was her cry that had alerted the Prince, Gust only realized now. He watched her supple grace and perfect curves with a sort of awe he had not felt since the first time he had drank in her image. She had probably saved his life. Or at least a severe injury and utter humiliation. These were Neptunians! The weakest magical beings on the earth! If he could not stand up to these, what would all the others think of him? Losing to a Banshee, or a Griffon, yes. . .but a Neptunian? Gods, and his thanks would be the warping of her mind. . .
  “Next time you tell me you’re going to ride ahead a little, remind me to kick you!” Gale said, anger mixed with relief. “I can summon spirits to scout around if you want, or you can use birds or something, but we can’t keep on being separated like this. What if that damned spy had caught us right then? It would be over! Like that!” Gale snapped, wrapped up in righteous fury. Of course Gust had had to get alone to plan out his all-important song, not to scout out, but her fury was still just, and Gust winced from the blow. How could he do this to her? What would she think of him? How could he hide this from her? Would it even be true love if he did?
  Gale took a deep breath, and noticed his hurt look. By Neptune, he deserved that little bit of chastisement, didn’t he? Why was he looking like some sort of lost puppy? Well, it wouldn’t do to have any bitterness between them, so she managed a smile. “Well, you were a marvel with the time you had. Breaking through their circle like that, just with a sword.”
  “My horse bolted. I had nothing to do with it.” Gust muttered, eyes downcast.
  Gust brought his head up and lifted a corner of his lips in a parody of a smile. “Thank you, Gale. I’ll try not to ever do this again.” Never again, he swore, brushing his harp case to make sure it had come through undamaged.
  *  *  *  *
  Xe-har soared over the treetops, ink black eyes scouring the forest floor for the flickering spirit somewhere below. He knew it was somewhere within eyesight of the party, but he could not approach too closely, lest he be discovered. So he circled, miles away, a small bird to any eyes that looked to the sky, and searched. The approach of night sharpened his vision, lending sharpness and colour to his surroundings, making the contrast between light and darkness ever more obvious. Soon, the flaring red of the spirit would shine against the pale light of the moon. Gliding on the currents of air, Xe-har rarely stroked his wings. He flew lazily, and low, and he could keep it up for days. Tonight, though, would be the end of it. He could feel that in his bones. The play of the setting sun made the leaves sparkle gold and violet. As they rustled in the slight, soft flow of wind, different leaves glistened and shone in a rainbow of fading colours. In the silent dark blue of the sky, drifting clouds battled with the emerging stars and haloed the bright crescent moon. Crickets pervaded the forest with a peaceful buzz of life, broken by the occasional mournful howl of wolves. Further and further, his form phased into the background darkness, and he dared to fly nearer the human campground.
  A flash? No, merely a pond reflecting the light of the moon. Water for the horses or somesuch. Xe-har cursed and flew nearer, maneuvering around the taller trees. An eagle shrieked a challenge at him as he flew by, but still no--
  Xe-har folded his wings and dived to the earth, landing softly on all fours. His tail slid into his back where his wings wrapped tightly across his shoulders. At the speed he was going, the spirit would be at least a hundred yards away. It probably hadn’t even noticed him. Even if it had, it would have recognized him as a friend. There was no true need for stealth. His body thrummed with the pent up energy of a coiled spring as his eyes soaked up whatever light that fell upon them. In the distance, the lapping of the spring gave him his sense of direction. The draconian caressed the clear crystal globe back and forth with his thumb, and stalked his prey.

  They had made camp and settled for the night, though most of them felt no need for sleep. It had been left to him, of course, to care for the horses. But he liked it, in a way. The horses knew and felt comfortable around him. Their simple loyalty brought a soft smile to his lips. Here were beings that thought well of him, who would not glare at him or remind him of his duty. Here were beings that did not remind him how much weaker he was, how superfluous he was, compared to his companions. So the horses had been left to him, and he hummed gently to them as he unsaddled them and brought them food and water. The gentle wind felt good against his skin, just the sensation of touch wrapped all around him made him feel more alive than he’d been since the skirmish. It brought cool peace to his mind, as if Uranus himself whispered to his ears, telling him that what he did was right, and blessed him. Yes, the wind is here with me. Uranus is here with me, and Neptune is here with her, and Neptune has never objected. The Gods stand beside me when I sing this song. They judge me noble.
  Mandaregli dolceprofumo dafiores dappertuttoli cielo.” Gust whispered, the sweet rush of magic rippling in and out of him, leaving a slight emptiness in its wake. He took out his harp and strummed it, letting his mind wander, and find the tender music of the Deepsong all around him. Patting a horse for good luck, he made his way back to the others and the cackling fire. Before the attack with the falcons, maybe two or three people could be found around the fire, now everyone gathered, uncomfortably silent and weary. It was a good time for a song. He could feel it in his bones. Finding his way to the center of the ring, the scent of flowers drifting on the wind and the flames making his eyes sparkle against the night lent him a royal grace beyond his abilities. The sound of his harp brought everyone to a reverent silence, their eyes turned towards him in joyous anticipation. He was at peace, and the Deepsong was glorious. Bowing with all the flourish of a bard, Gust strummed his harp and let out in a crisp, clear voice:

In the long, dark nights of the north,
the sun never shines,
and life is sluggish and weak.
There, among the mud and ice,
stalk the Jovians in an endless parody of the Void.

The wind is twisted into the moans of shades,
or the shrieks of the banshee,
the ploddings of the walking dead,
or the scrape of serpents across fallen leaves.

The sun does not rise, death and darkness are
the only sights a wayfarer can find.
The bleakness of her soul reflects,
encompasses the bleakness of the land.

Far away, fires rage and heat causes the very air to melt.
Racing hearts thrum with the rush of life all around,
War rages throughout the jungles and
royal, cloud capped peaks.

Always the light streams down,
the sun bright and strong, the evening star yet stronger.
There streaks of black battle floods of green,
silk and stone sheathed in flames.

Desperation, terror, despair that their love can not prevail,
babes weep and men fall,
the others watch as vultures to strip them of their Patron.
Something must be done. . .”

  Xe-har cocked his head, the faint voice of the prince reaching his ears. He could not discern the words, but the sounds held a power to them, something that made him want to get nearer, and embrace. He shook his head, dispelling the trance, and snarled. Let the Prince do as he wished, he had an assassination to make. He’d not failed at one yet, and no witchcraft was going to stop him now, after all this pain. He glided through the trees, each step careful and precise, toward the flicker of light that was not a flame. The spirit saw him, watched him as a deer watches frozen in place. Xe-har smiled, continued nearer. The spirit watched, but did not shy away, it was frozen. Xe-har raised his crystal globe, and crept closer. . .

  Gale listened, the words gradually losing meaning, melding with the music, and she was entranced. He was beautiful, his voice was beautiful, his music was beautiful, the meaning of it all was beautiful, and her mind was flooded with emotions. Thought no longer reached her mind, only these incredibly strong feelings, flowing through her like the scent of flowers flowed all around her. Tolerance, Understanding, Forgiveness, Lethe.
It swept into her without her mind ever forming it, dissolving memories here, replacing ideas there. Her eyes streamed with tears, entranced by the Prince, and the music reached her soul.

  Xe-har rose from his crouch, ten yards distant, still smiling. Somewhere this image of him, this image of the Spirit’s death, could show the murderous villain atop his bloodstained throne the cold knowledge of his own doom. Here was Bernardo’s avenging angel, in all its dark majesty. Here was a blade of acid hatred sharp enough to destroy a Kingdom. Xe-har gently, effortlessly tossed the small crystal globe into the air, it arched into the sky, then shattered. The magic spewed out, flaming, explosive. Within, a spirit screamed, trying to hold on to itself. Trying to retain its form against the tides of energy sweeping through it. . .

  The emotions smashed into her spirit, a rending, grinding force. Within, she struggled to survive, trying to hold on to her Self. The sweet music coursed through her veins, filling her heart, and she could not contain it. Her spirit screamed, dissolving and reforming against the tides of energy sweeping through it. . .

  And the spirit died. And everything was changed.

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