Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 18 & 19, Fantasy

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Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 18 & 19, Fantasy

Post  Firebrand on Fri Jun 01, 2012 9:16 am

Chapter 18

Sin took one last lungful of forest air. The scent of pines filled his nostrils. On his shoulder, Chifumi tightened her grip. “Sin… I’m scared.”

“Don’t be. There’s nothing to be afraid of. And even if there is, it’s part of the guardsmen’s code to protect little silver monkey demons.”

Chifumi scowled. “No it’s not!”

“Well, it’s part of my code, anyway.”

Damin clapped down on Sin’s opposite shoulder. “And it’s part of my code to make sure my charges don’t get themselves killed doing anything stupid. So if anything happens, I’ll be the first one into the fray.”

Roy appeared from the forest with Alleyne, each of them carrying three rabbits. “I wouldn’t worry,” the Archer said. “Nottingshire is a pleasant enough place most of the time. You should just calm your nerves and relax. There’s a nice inn there, makes the best ale north of the Capitol, if I do say so myself.”

Ivan nodded in agreement. “I’ve never had any trouble in Nottingshire. Nor has Signe.”

The group continued through the trees along the beaten forest road, before emerging at the wooden gate of a medium-sized town. Fields stretched to the west and east, but no one was working them, despite the hour of the day.

“Where are they all?” Thalia muttered.

“There,” Anjaru replied.

A large oak tree grew in the center of the town square. A large crowd had gathered around it. One man in clothes much richer than the average farm worker could afford was addressing them.

Ivan held up a hand and stepped through the gate. The others waited just far enough away that they could not be clearly made out. While the Foresters had assured Lisana that the Capitol held little sway here, sometimes anti-demon prejudice ran high. “Ho, sheriff! What tidings are these?”

The man in the rich cloak, the Sheriff of Nottingshire, looked up. “Ah, Ivan Forester. It’s good to see you safe. I was worried for a time there. There have been rumors.”

“Rumors of what, Tobias?”

“Criminals in the Hallowed Forest. Notorious outlaws.”

“Tobias, you know as well as I that humans rarely travel through the Forest.”

“Then it’s demons! Demon outlaws! They’ll kill us all in our beds! Here Ivan! See this! It’s been issued by the Capitol!”

Ivan took the proffered notice. Tobias drew another from the fold of his cloak. He reached for his hammer and sighed. “Ah, I’ve seemed to have misplaced my nail. Does anyone…?”

At that moment, several things happened. Ivan looked up from the royal order. “Light. This is bad.”

Signe tensed, feeling something amiss. Anjaru drew his sword, hearing the sheriff say demons would murder them all in their beds. And Roy hefted his bow, a cocky grin breaking across his face.

“Well, I don’t know about nails, but will an arrow work?”

The shaft flew straight and true, embedding itself a mere inch above the sheriff’s finger, and pinning the paper to the tree. The sheriff turned. “You. The Archer! Seize him! In the name of our Regent, seize him! The reward is seventy gold pieces!”

“Run!” Ivan bellowed.

Roy shoved three of the rabbits into Sin’s hands. “Well, I’m really quite awful at goodbyes anyway, and we must go I’m afraid. I’m sorry, truly, but have a wonderful day and we should do this again sometime and all that.”

Then, he turned on his heel, still grinning. “Merry men, away with us! Into the forest, ho!”

Madge shook her head. “Merry women, too, thank you.”

“Yes, yes, don’t get your tunic in a twist, woman. Just run, will you?”

John Little was already sprinting to the shelter of the Hallowed Forest, dragging a catatonic Tucker behind him. Will and Merriu ran just behind, with Alleyne laughing like a maniac and shouting how this will make a wonderful ballad when it was done.

Madge grabbed a miller’s cart from near the gate and hurled it over Roy’s head and into the approaching mob. Kelrick’s mouth dropped open. “I don’t think even Orrin could have done that!”

Roy bounded over the cart and stood on the top of it. “Well, Sheriff, catch me if you can!” He laughed, and then ran as hard as he could into the forest.

The sheriff of Nottingshire turned on Lisana. “You! You were with them! You must be accomplices!”

Signe drew her bow. “Tobias, you know us! Why would we work with outlaws? Light, they’re not even outlaws!”

“The crown’s word is law!”

Sin could stand it no longer. “It’s not even the crown! It’s the Chancellor!”

“Silence, scum!”

Kelrick, Anjaru and Thalia stepped forward. Damin moved next to them, but Anjaru shook his head almost imperceptibly. “No. You get the rest of them out of here. We can handle this one, and buy Roy some time.”

Damin nodded and swung up onto his mare’s back. He grabbed Lisana as he galloped by and set her in front of him. The guardsman slapped a riding croft along Dusty’s flank, and the bay draft horse whinnied in astonishment. Sin grabbed onto his bridle and had to sprint to keep up. Signe ran alongside him, her bow drawn, but she wasn’t firing.

“Thirty silver pieces for any man who brings me back the Foresters!” Tobias shouted.

“Are you mad?” Ivan roared. “Come, people of Nottingshire! Who was it that saved you from flooding a year ago? Me! And who dispatched the two rampaging demons a year before that? Signe! Why would we move against you?”

One farmer spoke out. “Thirty silver pieces, Ivan! That could feed a family for a year! You’re a decent man, but that’s a decent sum!”

The wildmage spat in disgust. “Money is the world’s curse! Damn you all, then! Next time a blight strikes your crops, or a demon lurks outside the gates, do not come crying to us!”

He ran after Sin, fires smoldering in his eyes. “That man… If Roy doesn’t get him, I will!”

“What do we do now?” Sin asked.

“Get as far away from here as possible,” Signe replied sharply. “We’ll keep going north. Follow the road as best we can. If it comes to it, head west to Shaman’s Peak, or even Stardust Lake.”

“It won’t,” Ivan said. “We won’t do that. Signe, our domain has always been the forests. And it seems that the only haven left to us is the Dark Forest.”

“How is the Dark Forest a haven?” Sin cried. “There’s monsters in there!”

“The only monsters in this world are men.”

“Well, it’s still not safe!”

Ivan glared at the young man. “Sin, what’s the last civilized place before the northern mountains?”

“Bander's End.”

“Wrong.”

“What? But… all the maps…”

“Neglect to mention Darkrest. A barony long since forsaken by the Capitol, a small fortress built by the last of the shamans in the war centuries ago. It is on the very southernmost edge of the Dark Forest. Signe and I have associates there. They will help us.”

“But… but…”

“Sin, Lisana has much to learn, and that is the only place I can teach her.”

“I… Okay. It’s my duty to protect Lisana. I’ll go.”

Ivan smiled. “Good boy. Now, the road runs straight for many a mile here, and flat too. Find a good strong pace and run.”

Sin nodded and urged Dusty faster. He would have ridden, even though Dusty’s broad chest made his legs hurt. But Dusty was laden with all their gear, so Sin couldn’t have stayed on his back if he tried. He wished Navarre and the other Riders were there.

Kelrick and Thalia ran up in their animal forms. The dog that was Kelrick growled up at Ivan, and the forest mage seemed to understand. He muttered an indistinguishable spell and tossed some seeds over his shoulder. Then, he turned around and drove his fist into the dirt of the road.

A gigantic hedge began to grow behind them, fed off of Ivan’s magical power. It grew high and wide, and dense enough to slow any pursuer.

Overhead, Anjaru, in the form of a falcon, cried out. To Sin, it sounded like laughter.

***

Thea glared out her chamber window. She palmed a knife hidden under her petticoat. She was to sit beside the Chancellor at the feast tonight, and how easy it would be to slide it between his ribs. But if she did, a new regent would be chosen, probably from within the Chancellor’s Triad.

It might be Fredrick, and she could live with that. The man seemed like a decent enough sort, roped into a plan beyond his comprehension. At times he even seemed a bit senile. He spent so much time working on spells, he probably had gone quite mad.

Then again, it may as well be Ludwig, that dreadful new spymaster. His lust for power and prestige would be enough to bankrupt the kingdom, and Thea would not be able to manipulate him at all.

But worst of all would be if Astrid became the Regent. She would impose a military rule over Thea’s future subjects, making them fear the Crown’s authority, and through that, her.

“You are troubled, mistress.”

Thea whirled around. “Vaati! You scared me. I didn’t hear you come in.”

The demon, who wore the guise of a young boy with pointed features, bowed. “I apologize. I will make sure the door squeaks in the future.”

“No, no, that would be silly. What’s wrong, Vaati?”

“I should be asking you the same, mistress.”

“You presume much,” Thea replied. “Questioning your own mistress.”

“Apologies, your highness.”

“Forget it, Vaati. Why are you here?”

“I am to inform you that the Chancellor has sent a gown for you to wear to the feast tonight. Serra will bring it up shortly.” The demon bowed and stood very still.

Thea had long since gotten used to Vaati’s uncanny ability to stand as still as a statue. Sometimes he even seemed to blend into the background. The Crown Princess resumed combing her hair.

After a few minutes, a knock came at the door. “Enter,” Thea said.

Serra, her other demon, strode through, carrying a red silk gown between two fingers, held at arms length, as though it were a poison. She laid it down on Thea’s bed and went to stand next to Vaati. She, however, was completely incapable of standing still for more than a few seconds, and began fidgeting with her long silver hair, moving it away from her black boiled leather armor.

“You’re really going to this thing, Dorothea?” As Thea’s personal guard, Serra had begun addressing her by her full, proper name, and not ‘mistress’, as Vaati did.

“Yes, Serra. It is my duty as a princess. Despite how much I detest the company I will be keeping.”

“Well, Dorothea, I’ll be waiting outside the banquet hall. You have only to call out, and I will be there, sword in hand.”

“I doubt it will come to that Serra. Besides, I’ll be able to have Vaati with me.”

The sliver haired demon blinked. “What?”

“Yes, Serra. The Chancellor has allowed Vaati to attend me. He will be waiting off to the side in the hall. If I need you, I will simply send him. Far less obtrusive than calling out.”

Serra nodded, and left with Vaati so that Thea could prepare for the feast. More than anything, Thea wished she could abdicate the palace, join up with her Royalist contacts, and then quit the Capitol, to be reunited with her brother in his self-imposed exile. He had said that unless he could save their father, he would never again be seen in the Capitol’s lands until he could reclaim his birthright.

But with that, Thea also remembered what he had made her promise, five long years ago. That she would stay here and defend their subjects against the Chancellor, and to be strong, so that no one would think their family weak.

And to make life hell for the man who had ruined theirs.

Thea smiled as slid on her amulet bracelets.

***

Aldrick stood next to Liath at the front of his regiment as the Chancellor and Astrid paraded past. “Why am I stuck up here with you?” he hissed to the wolf demon.

“Believe me, I’m no more pleased by the arrangement, human filth.” Liath ran her tongue over her pointed canine teeth and huffed a breath out through her nose. “You smell.”

Aldrick shifted in his metal hauberk. It was heavy and cumbersome, not to mention almost unbearably hot. To have this kind of muster in the heat of the day was pure foolishness on the Chancellor’s part.

“Why am I even here?” Aldrick hissed to his fellow centurion. “I don’t belong in the army! I’m a thief! A highwayman!”

Liath shrugged. “The human army is weak.” She glanced over her shoulder at the first mixed regiment in the kingdom, made up of demon and human warriors. The demons seemed quite at ease in this arrangement, but the human soldiers were all sellswords and mercenaries. The demon sighed. “The best warriors you can come up with are captains of city guards, who can’t be drafted, and these men and women who live and die by their blades. Have you seen these soldiers the nobles are turning out?”

Aldrick looked at the other regiments. All but a few were led by a noble house, with their lord standing at the forefront in ostentatious armor. The fighters behind them, all male, looked terribly out of place. Some used to be guardsmen, but others were farmers, who had never owned a sword and were wearing armor of the wrong sizes.

A few knights, highly distinguished members of the Castle Town militia and usually in the service of the Royal Family, strutted past on their immaculate horses, shining silver lances raised high in the air. Behind them followed members of the Watch and the Militia, the only men who seemed properly trained.

The three purely-demon regiments hissed as the parade passed by, the presence of iron unsettling them. They radiated power, the best the Council could call upon. Kutayara led one of them, while Reyaf led another. The two demons glowered at each other from afar.

Liath was staring hard at Aldrick. “Look, we were put in charge of this regiment as the Chancellor’s pawns. Pieces in his little game against Astrid. It’ll do us no good if we’re constantly squabbling. So,” she stuck out her hand, “truce? At least until the dust settles, then we can kill each other.”

Aldrick nodded, and shook the demon’s hand. Liath growled softly as the metal in his chain mail gauntlets made contact with her skin, but she held the grip, and Aldrick couldn’t help but admire her for that.

Too many people looked down on demons, for reasons the one-time thief couldn’t fathom. But he had lived in the Great Forest long enough to recognize the power of feral demons, and to come to respect it. When the Chancellor had offered him his freedom in exchange for the position of centurion in a mixed troop, he had jumped at it. Freedom and power, now those were two things a thief in his right mind would never renounce.

It came time for their century to march, and they did. Despite being made up of fighters who were most comfortable operating on their own, they were the most presentable of all that turned out. Every warrior walked with a certain swagger, baring their scars proudly as trophies of past encounters. Some tension crackled between the humans and demons, but in general Aldrick was happy to see that there was little enough friction.

Fanfare echoed in Aldrick’s ears as they marched down the central thoroughfare of Castle Town, people leaning out the windows to catch just a glimpse of him in his fabulous armor. He flashed a winning smile at a few pretty young noblewomen, and they demurely covered their faces with veils, but waved back serenely.

“Why bother?” Liath muttered. “They are above you in station.”

“It’s the thrill of the chase,” Aldrick replied. “And I’m not the lowlife I was a week ago. Now I have a chance to make a name for myself. They may not be so far out of my reach in a year.”

“Demons have no such concepts as this. We had a king, he kept his court. We have no concept of wealth, only power. Our king was defeated, and now we have a puppet queen. We rightfully follow her, because she defeated the king, but I do not have to like it.”

“Talreya went willingly to the Chancellor, didn’t she?” Aldrick whispered, almost afraid that the Demon Queen would hear. He had seen her with the Chancellor before, and she scared him more than anything else in the world.

“Yes. She could have easily broken his pathetic mortal will, but she didn’t. Why, I will never know. There is no greater pleasure in one’s life than being free. Remember that, human. No matter how many times you are captured, you will never know true imprisonment.”

This Liath was very unlike the one in the stories, Aldrick had discovered. The Liath that people talked about in hushed voices and behind closed doors was a ruthless killer who would rampage and slay a child just as easily as a murderer. She had no emotion aside from anger. She was mindless. That was the Liath of the battlefield.

But this Liath was different. She showed wisdom, and sometimes even a glimmer of kindness to those that served under her command. She had a mind for justice, and yearned for the freedom to wander the forests once more, without destination or goal. This was the Liath who had seen too much of the world, and had grown weary of it.

Of course, Aldrick would never talk of this to anyone, for fear Liath would rip his still-beating heart from his chest and demand he eat it before he perished.

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Re: Sin - By Firebrand, Chapters 18 & 19, Fantasy

Post  Firebrand on Fri Jun 01, 2012 9:35 am

Chapter 19

Shaman’s Peak jutted up against the plains to the southwest. They had passed it some days ago, but even then it had been a long ways away from the road. The lone mountain stood alone against the elements, with white clouds drifting past the very top, blending in with the snow that capped it’s peak.

Anjaru caught where Sin was staring. “Look straight ahead, Master Sin,” he admonished. “Always forward.”

“It’s just so amazing,” Sin replied. “I can’t help it. Someday, I’d love to see the view from the top. I bet you can see the castle!”

Anjaru nodded. “Very faintly.”

“You’ve been up there?”

“Master Sin, I am the Air Master. Of course I have been to the one point in the kingdom that is closer than any other to the sky.”

Ivan laughed. “Sin, I’ve been up there too. It’s very cold.”

Sin took one last wistful look at the majestic peak. “Someday, then.”

They continued plodding onwards to the north. The road sliced through the plains. Chifumi and Sin watched enthralled as wild horses galloped through the waist-high grass. As the sun set, they passed through the town of Bander's End. No one recognized them.

An innkeeper called out from a window, asking if they wanted room and board for the night. Damin looked like he wanted to say yes, but Ivan shook his head. “We have urgent business to the north.”

“There’s nothing in the north!” the man shouted back.

“There’s Darkrest,” Ivan replied, and continued walking.

“I wouldn’t go there if I were you,” the innkeeper said. “Some strange goings-on there. Might serve you best to turn around and go back.”

“Sir,” Signe said softly. “Do you know who we are? My brother and I are the Foresters. If something in the kingdom is amiss, it is our duty to put it to rights.”

A man in front of the stables brushed off his blue traveling cloak. “There’s plenty wrong in the kingdom, lady. But you’re facing the wrong direction.” He pointed south, towards the Capitol. “If you really want to set things to rights, start there.”

Signe’s nostrils flared as she went for her knife. “You dare to speak in that manner to me? As though my brother and I haven’t done everything within our power to keep you and yours safe? To battle the Capitol at every step of the way?”

Ivan put a hand on his sister’s arm and gently shoved her towards Damin. The guardsman led her a little ways up the road, out of hearing range of the innkeeper and the traveler.

Ivan sighed. “Listen sir. My sister and I, we are only two people. We can do very little against the full might of the Regent. We keep people safe, and that’s about all we can do. If that’s not enough, perhaps you might consider standing up for yourselves.”

Sin and Lisana exchanged a wince at the barely disguised insult. The traveler tensed, picking up on it. Ivan tugged at his beard. “Well, then, we best be on our way. Come, my friends.”

Kelrick grinned and padded off beside him. Thalia arched an eyebrow at the traveler as she swept past. Anjaru said nothing, only looking straight ahead. Sin and Lisana followed behind Ivan silently. They continued to the end of the road at Bander's End, where a guard stopped them at the gate. Beyond, the road was nothing more than a winding narrow path. The Dark Forest could be seen on the horizon about two or three miles away.

“Not much out there,” the guard said softly. “Why are you leaving?”

“We have business in the Dark Forest,” Signe replied sharply.

The guard cringed. “Seen a few feral demons out there lately. Last night they were within fifty feet of the gates, fighting over something.”

Lisana sighed. “Sir, I assure you, we can handle it. Both my partner and I here know a fair bit of magic. My demons and my champion will keep us safe.” Sin blushed when Lisana called him her champion.

The guard glanced at Sin. “This kid? I would think the big man would be a better option…”

“Sin was chosen as my protector.”

“All right. Well, what business do you have out of Bander's End?”

Ivan pulled a loose strand of his blonde hair. “Well sir, my sister and I are the Foresters. Have you heard of us? No? Well, we protect the wild places of the realm. And the trouble in the Dark Forest and at Darkrest has merited our attention. We’re going to go take a look.”

The guard glanced at them. “Well, you look strong enough. Darkrest is two days journey from here though. Are you sure you don’t want to stay in town for the night?”

“We’ll travel through the night,” Anjaru replied.

“That’s… hardly safe.”

“We will be fine,” Thalia hissed.

The guard gulped. “All… All right.” He let them through, and they passed into the north.

***

Damin grasped the hilt of his sword, his knuckles turning white. “This isn’t natural,” he whispered. “A forest shouldn’t feel like this.”

The young sorceress nodded, her face pale. “The Great Forest feels like… home. I know all the sights and sounds and smells. The Hallowed Forest was different, but it was more peaceful. Like the entire world was slowing down, but in a good way. This… this is just wrong.”

Sin couldn’t help but agree. They were only passing along the rim of the Dark Forest, and the very trees seemed malevolent. The wind sent shivers down his spine. Chifumi wrapped her arms around his neck and whimpered softly. Kelrick and Anjaru were on edge, prowling around Lisana.

Damin’s mare was shying away from them all, and it took all of Damin’s skills as a rider to keep her from bolting. Even the normally unshakeable Dusty was glancing around and starting, as much as a three hundred pound draft horse could start.

Ivan and Signe were deep in a whispered conversation. Signe was gesticulating wildly, while Ivan was shaking his head and casting his hands about. Signe looked outraged, Ivan panicked.

But it was Thalia’s reaction that made Sin the most worried. Normally, the Ice Maiden was unaffected by cold temperatures, braving the snowy streets of Harrisholt in midwinter in nothing but a summer dress and showing no signs of discomfort.

But now she shuddered and rubbed her arms, trying to keep in whatever warmth her icy form possessed. Sin made his way over to her. “Thalia? Are you all right?”

“Of course not,” Thalia hissed back.

“Do you want my cloak?” Sin asked. “It’s warm.”

The Ice Maiden gave him a small smile. “No, human. Keep your cloak, you need it more than I. It wouldn’t help anyway. This is no normal chill. This is dark magic.”

“Dark magic?”

“Yes,” Thalia replied. “Magic that only the vilest and twisted sorcerer may cast. It is fueled by blood. Human and demon.”

“That’s horrible!”

“I know.” She looked into the trees. “But not so loud, boy. There are watchers, listeners, that we can’t hope to see.”

Sin fell silent, a little worried. He tapped the pommel of his sword, and felt a little reassured by the presence of the steel. It would stave off the worst effects of the magic. Or so he hoped.

After walking for some time through the soft dawn light, a cry from the trees made him nearly jump out of his skin. Three ravens descended on the group, one of them landing on Sin’s shoulder, opposite Chifumi.

He furiously tried to brush it off, but the raven merely fluttered out of the way. A second, a little larger than the one that was staring intently at Sin, flapped it’s wings in front of Kelrick’s face, crying out sharply. The third landed on Dusty, and by that, next to Lisana.

They began to call out, getting more and more insistent as the seconds past. Sin’s raven flicked its head at the trail north and croaked. It continued bobbing in this nearly comical fashion for a moment before lifting off, the other two following it.

“Follow, follow, follow!” they cried. “Ring, ring, ring!”

“Those are no normal ravens,” Anjaru growled.

Damin furrowed his brow. “I don’t know. Some ravens can be trained to speak.”

“Not like that. Those ravens have traces of magic on them.”

Ivan looked up at the sky. “They’re headed on a straight path for Darkrest. I have a feeling this is a trap.”

“We have to go there anyway,” Signe replied. “And we can get out of it if it proves to be a trap.”

“They mentioned something about a ring,” Lisana murmured. “Is it an amulet or talisman of some sort?”

***

They arrived in Darkrest a few hours later. The three ravens sat atop the town gates, and cried out as Sin’s companions got closer. “Castle! Castle Dark! Dark!”

Ivan sighed. “Yes, definitely a trap.” He nodded up at a large rocky outcropping above the town of Darkrest. On it was a large, imposing tower of black stone. “That wasn’t here eighteen months ago. And who ever heard of a benevolent, kind sorcerer who thinks only of his subjects living in a place like that?”

“Why do the evil people always go for towers?” Kelrick mused. “That’s the way it happens in the stories, anyway. Why not just a nice little cottage or something? Just once?”

Signe strung her bow and positioned her quiver where it was within easy reach. “Something’s happened to the Winterhold boys. They wouldn’t have done something like this, not the ones I knew.”

“Winterhold?” Lisana asked.

Surprisingly, it was Chifumi who answered. “The brothers who are in charge of Darkrest. One of them was friends with Harrison back on the Council.”

“Sorcerers?” Damin asked. “Harrison never mentioned them.”

“Only the oldest is a sorcerer,” Signe replied.

They strode into town, and immediately lanterns went out. No one wanted to associate with these strange travelers from the south. They reached a door labeled as an inn, and Ivan pounded on the door. “Open up!”

“We don’t want trouble!” a voice cried from inside. “Please, we’ve paid all our taxes! Just go away!”

“I’m a customer, you dolt!” Ivan shouted back. “Open up!”

“We don’t want customers!” the innkeeper shouted back.

Ivan sighed and laid his forehead against the wooden slab of a door. “Look. If this isn’t opened by the time I count to five, I’m blowing it down. I’m tired, I’m hungry, and I’ve got coin to pay for it.”

“Please, no! Go away!”

Ivan placed his two palms against the solid slab of wood. “One… two…” His hands began to glow with green light, a light that only intensified as he continued. “Three… Four…” By now the light was blinding, and Sin had to shield his eyes.

“All right!” the man cried out, and flung the door open. The glow disappeared instantly, and Ivan smiled. He tossed the innkeeper a bag of coins.

“For your troubles.”

Then, he sat himself down at one of the few tables in the common room. “Food. For all of us.”

“But sir… there are demons with you.”

“And they have been paid for. They will eat.”

The innkeeper scurried off to the kitchen before Ivan could use any more magic.

Sin lowered his voice to Signe. “Would he have actually blown the door off its hinges? He was bluffing, right?”

“Ivan never bluffs.”

The female Forester went to sit next to her brother, who was now all smiles. Lisana and Damin sat with them, while Sin took a table with the demons. They waited patiently as the innkeeper banged around in the kitchen, hastily preparing a meal. When he emerged, he set it before them. The poor man tried to escape, but Ivan grabbed his arm. “Sit. It’s not like you have other customers to attend to.”

“What more do you want?” the man cried.

“Information. What’s going on here? And what’s the story behind that tower?”

The innkeeper glanced at the windows. “We can’t talk about it. He has eyes everywhere.”

Ivan snapped his fingers. “Now He can’t hear anything said within these walls. Speak.”

The innkeeper gulped. “All… All right. It happened about a year ago. Two men, a woman and a few demons came to Darkrest and went up to the fortress, where the Winterhold family lived, along with their allies. A few sorcerers and a war band, that’s all they had, plus a few servants. There was a lot of flashes of light, and we were all afraid of what would happen.”

The man glanced around again. “At dawn, the fortress collapsed into rubble. The two men were just standing there. A few of the demons were with them, but most of them were gone. We don’t know where. The woman was gone too.”

“Were they dead?” Lisana asked.

“That’s what we all think. But no one but the two sorcerers survived. One of them left shortly after, though. He had an opera cape and an expensive hat. The few times we saw him cast magic, it was always darkness. He used darkness. A few demons went with him when he left, but the rest stayed here with Him.”

Damin took a sip of ale. He made a face, and Sin knew it was probably a cheap beer. “Go on,” the guardsman growled. “What’s the story with this tower?”

“He built the tower with magic and demons. We don’t know what’s inside. Except that there is a gigantic demon in there. We saw it in the rubble.”

Ivan sighed. “And that’s it? That’s all you know?”

“He doesn’t like strangers. You’re not safe here. He killed the last ones. You can see their heads on His gate. He works us all very hard. He takes our crops, and his taxes are high.”

“Only the Crown can collect taxes,” Sin hissed. “Only Thea can collect taxes.”

Anjaru was thinking of other things. “Who is this man you keep referring to?”

The innkeeper shook his head. “We aren’t allowed to say it.”

Kelrick growled. “You’re protected here. Ivan’s spell assures that. So speak. Names can have power.”

“His name is… his name… it’s Masgard. Fenris Masgard.”

One of the windows opened with a bang, and a dark cloud rushed in. The innkeeper dove under the table. “He’s found us! We’ll all perish! Light have mercy!”

Ivan shook his head. “Don’t be a fool, man! This is no emissary of darkness!” He smiled as the three ravens who guided them to Darkrest alighted on the table. The largest gave a loud croak while one, who’s eye seemed to sparkle, began to rasp.

“Magic, magic, magic.”

Ivan nodded. “Yes, we can do magic.”

The raven shook its head and seemed to gesture at its companions. “Magic! Magic!”

Anjaru leaned forward. “I knew there was something amiss about these birds! They aren’t using the language of beasts! I think what they’re saying is they have magic.”

The lead raven nodded vigorously, and glanced beseechingly at Lisana and Ivan. “Magic. Bad. Magic.”

“Corn,” the largest croaked.

“Stupid,” said the smallest.

“Magic,” the leader squawked.

Ivan closed his eyes and was silent for a long time. Thalia licked her lips as her eyes wandered over the ravens. “Don’t eat them!” Sin hissed.

Thalia scowled. “This inn food must be terribly unappetizing if I would lower myself to consider eating these carrion birds!”

Ivan finally spoke, his eyes still closed. “Lisana, can you see the magic yet?”

“Huh?” the young sorceress said, startled.

“Can you observe the magic flowing past you in the world? See the currents of energy it creates as you manipulate it?”

“Sometimes,” Lisana admitted. “But I only started to see them recently, and only when I focus very hard.”

“Try now, by looking at these ravens. It will help to close your eyes.”

Lisana compiled, and like Ivan, was silent for a time. Then, she cried out. “There’s… patterns, I suppose, around them! They’re emerald and black and ruby red!”

Ivan smiled, still with his eyes shut. Sin was starting to get unnerved. The wildmage spoke again. “By the way the patterns wrap around them, it seems to be a binding sigil, at least on the surface. Of course, it’s been a long time since I’ve needed the glyphs, so I could be wrong. But as I looked closer I saw more intricate spells woven in. A spell of silence, for example, and some kind of curse. It’s all very twisted and complicated. I think that by working with you, I could probably unweave at least the silence spell, because that one is puzzling me. It doesn’t fit in with the other enchantments.”

Lisana nodded her assent. “All right.” She pulled out her wand of dead yew. “Just tell me what has to be done.”

Ivan sighed. “It may take a while. The rest of you go to sleep. We’ll meet back here in the morning.”

Signe tossed the innkeeper a bag of coins for the rooms. As they made their way to the stairs, the timid man spoke up. “Uh… the demons will be in rooms? Like people?”

Kelrick’s shoulders sagged, but Anjaru whirled on his heel. “Of course we will, you twit.” Then, he stalked up the stairs, his posture incredibly haughty.

The overall effect was ruined for Sin, who could see the grin on the Air Master’s face.

***

Sin walked into the common room with Damin and Kelrick the next morning. The Hellhound had Chifumi sleeping in his arms. Lisana was sipping a mug of tea by the window. The three ravens were perched on the backs of chairs. No one else was in sight.

“Any luck?” Damin asked.

Lisana nodded. “Ivan and I think we figured out the silence spell, and how to unweave it. If we can get it off the ravens, maybe we’ll learn something.”

They waited a half hour as the other members of their group filtered into the lower floor of the inn. When they had all gathered, Ivan cleared his throat and brought them all over to the table they shared last night. The ravens fluttered over.

Lisana drew her wand as Ivan explained what was about to happen. He said that Lisana was going to use a counterspell against the silencing magic, while also repressing the effects of the other spells with a neutralizing glyph. To the demons and Signe, this seemed to make sense, but Damin and Sin were completely lost.

Lisana traced the glowing patterns in the air, and they floated around the ravens, glowing brighter and brighter as they revolved. Finally, Lisana spoke the word, “Release,” and there was a brilliant flash of light.

When Sin could see again, to him, nothing had changed. The ravens were still ravens. The largest feebly croaked out, “Corn?”

Lisana slumped down in her chair. “It didn’t work. I failed.”

Sin placed his hands on her shoulders. “No. You tried your best. And besides, you’ve never worked with counterspells or enchantments before. Harrison only taught you battle and weather magic.”

“You mean she could just as well have lit my tail feathers on fire?” an indignant voice cried.

Everyone turned to see the lead raven preening himself. “I mean, by the Light, this girl had no experience at all? I thought you people were supposed to be famous!”

Kelrick grinned. “Lisana, I think it worked.”

The smaller raven hopped from foot to foot. “Well. That seems a little obvious, doesn’t it? Demons…”

The large raven puffed himself up. “I’m hungry.”

“I suppose that your stomach didn’t shrink much more than your brain did, then,” the small raven snapped.

Damin slumped into a chair. “Can someone please explain what just happened?”

The lead raven bounced over to him. “Illiya’s the name. Illiya Winterhold. Charmed, I’m sure. I’d shake your hand, but in my current state that doesn’t seem very probable.”

“Winterhold?” Sin gasped. “You used to be the ones who were in charge of Darkrest?”

“It seems the demons aren’t the only ones who feel compelled to state the obvious,” the small raven quipped. “Miika Winterhold. Pleasure.”

The largest of the ravens made a sound halfway between a croak and a burp. “Sascha Winterhold. I’m still hungry.”

Ivan held up a hand. “Illiya. You were the sorcerer in the family, correct? Can you explain to me how you and your brothers have come to be like this?”

“It was that Masgard bastard,” Illiya replied. “He invaded my castle, banished my demons, killed my men, and then leveled the place! He used his magic to turn my brothers and I into these accursed birds. I think he meant to keep us as pets, but we escaped.”

“And happened to find us?”

Illiya bobbed up and down, his whole body nodding. “I saw you with demons. You had to have a sorcerer. So I knew you would be able to lift the curse.”

Lisana shook her head. “I don’t know. It took all I had to lift the silencing. I’m certain that the other enchantments are beyond me.”

Miika glanced at his brother. “Illiya? Didn’t you used to have that talisman?”

Illiya made a sharp call. “No! I’m sure that Masgard keeps that on him at all times! It would be too dangerous!”

“But Illiya! I think it’s our only hope!”

“I said no, Miika!”

“What are you talking about?” Thalia hissed. “What manner of talisman?”

Illiya scuffed his talon against the table. “A ring. Passed down from generation to generation in our family. It was made from the horn of a unicorn, inset with a flawless diamond set in gold.”

Ivan grinned. “So it can remove curses. And I assume there were protective and curing spells laced with it?”

“Of course. How did you know?”

“Because the horn of a unicorn is able to dispel most dark magics. Diamond and gold are pure stones and metals that can absorb spells and harness their energy, diverting it into another source. A powerful object, and one that I’m sure could help. It may be able to remove your enchantments completely.”

“The only problem,” Anjaru grumbled, “is getting into the fortress.”

The door opened with a bang. The innkeeper, accompanied by two fierce-looking demons, stood in the door frame. “There they are!” the innkeeper cried. “Those are the ones who want to kill Lord Masgard!”

“Traitor!” Damin roared, but Kelrick pulled him away.

“Go to the Dark Forest!” Miika squawked. “You’ll be safe there!”

Sin wanted to argue back that there was no way he could feel safe in the Dark Forest, but now was hardly the time. Working together, Lisana and Kelrick blasted a hole in the rear wall of the inn, and the group raced out of it.

The three ravens circled above their head, and led them out of the village as the demons the innkeeper had brought followed closely behind. Sin sprinted for the Dark Forest, hoping the transfigured Winterhold brothers were right.

***

The pain in his chest was almost unbearable. Sin just wanted to fall to the ground and collapse in a heap. It didn’t matter if Masgard’s demons caught him, he’d die anyway if they kept running like this.

Anjaru ran alongside him, showing no signs of fatigue. The Air Master was mouthing curses. “What’s… wrong?” Sin gasped out.

“The horses! Damn it, we left the horses back there!”

“Too late to go back!” Illiya cried from above. He and his brothers were flying through the trees. “We need to reach the safe place!”

Lisana stumbled and fell. Sin caught her, and saw that her face was etched with pain. “No,” he said, stopping. “We aren’t being followed any more. We need to slow down.”

“There are eyes everywhere!” Miika shouted. “And feral demons!”

Kelrick stood by Sin and his mistress. “I fear no demon. Not even Talreya herself.”

Sascha croaked mournfully. “I’m hungry.”

Miika made an indignant noise. “You’re always hungry, you oaf!”

“I’m not an oaf! I’m hungry…”

Illiya hopped to the ground. “Fine. We’ll weave through the Forest a ways.” He flitted back up to the branches. “Try to keep pace.”

Ivan took a deep breath. “The air is wrong here. There’s an enchantment not made by humans.”

“Pay it no mind!” Miika squawked. “Demons have lived in this forest for centuries!”

The ravens disappeared into the canopy; the only thing betraying their location was the rustling of branches. Sin and his company trudged along on the ground, following a meandering series of game trails. After traveling for some time, they reached a small, slightly run down cottage in the middle of a clearing. The Winterhold brothers were sitting on the dilapidated roof.

“This is a safe house,” Illiya croaked. “I put protective charms on it years ago, back when I was a human.”

“We didn’t need it much,” Sascha added.

Kelrick pushed open the door, which squealed in protest. Thalia crept past him and glanced in the few cupboards. She wrinkled her nose. “Any food that’s here has gone bad, or been eaten by mice.”

“The hearth will service,” Signe reported. “But we’ll need some firewood. And a broom.” She strung her bow. “I’ll go hunting.”

Ivan shrugged, too tired to protest. It had been several hours since they last ate their meager breakfast at the inn. Chifumi scampered up into the roof beams. “Hey! Look what I found!”

Miika squawked and dove in through the door. “Don’t touch it!”

But Chifumi had already tossed the bag down to Sin. The young man opened the drawstrings and gasped. “There’s got to be a small fortune in gold here!”

“And it’s ours!” Miika cried.

Illiya and Sascha alighted in the doorway. “It makes no difference,” the transfigured sorcerer said. “We can’t use it anyhow. Might as well let them have it.”

Signe returned about an hour later with three rabbits. Ivan and Anjaru cleaned the carcasses and cooked them. They left the entrails for the ravens. As dusk set in, Kelrick, Thalia and Sin gathered firewood, mostly just dry branches from the loamy ground. Tomorrow, they would look for dead trees to cut down, so that they would have a true log pile. No one seemed ready to say how long they would be here.

Since the only bed in the safe house was covered in cobwebs and dust, and the floor little better, the company resolved to sleep outside again, on their bedrolls.

Sin gazed up at the clear night sky, and fell asleep listening to Lisana’s soft breathing beside him.

***

Thalia winced as a twig splintered beneath Sin’s foot. “Really, boy, you should be more careful.”

“I’m sorry,” Sin muttered.

“Don’t be. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.” The ice demon peered at her somehow immaculate nails. “If we were hunting, there wouldn’t be a deer for a mile. I haven’t sensed any demons nearby, but I don’t want you luring any with your clumsiness.”

Sin sighed and picked up a sizable branch with his left hand, then added it to the bundle under his right. He and Thalia continued to wander through the woods, searching for kindling. “Keep up,” Thalia called.

Sin stumbled over yet another root. “Could you slow down a little?”

“If I do, I might fall behind.”

“Are you even looking for firewood?”

Thalia paused for a minute and shrugged. “Not really. You’re picking up anything worth taking.” Then, she glanced up at the leaves, vibrantly green in the late summer light. “I like walking through the woods on days like this.”

“But we’re supposed to be picking up firewood.”

“I wasn’t ordered to.”

Sin sighed and gave up. Arguing with Thalia was like trying to stop a flood with your bare hands. Only a sorcerer could make any headway. After walking for a considerable length of time, Thalia finally whirled. “You walk too slowly.”

“I’m only two paces behind you!”

“I don’t want to lead.”

Sin rolled his eyes. “Then stop getting ahead of me.”

“I meant it in a broader sense,” Thalia replied. She bent down and picked up a few twigs. Then, she rolled her eyes and continued onward. Sin hastened to catch up.

“What’s wrong with you today?”

Thalia looked down at him. Sin wasn’t exactly short, but Thalia was rather tall. The Ice Maiden was quiet for a moment before allowing the ghost of a smile to across her pale lips. “This is how it should be.”

“Thalia, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Thalia adjusted her pace to match Sin’s, the first sign of any empathy the young man had picked up from the distant creature in a long time. “Don’t walk behind me, I don’t want to lead. Don’t walk before me, I don’t want to follow. Just walk by my side, as my friend.”

Sin was silent for a time. Then, he nodded. “I think I understand. Humans shouldn’t seek to control demons, and even if demons consent to be Bound, like you, Kelrick and Anjaru, that doesn’t make it right.

“Demons and sorcerers are stronger together. Like with Lisana’s verse spell. She got the power she needed, and you and Kelrick got something in return. His tattoos, and your eyes. Something changed back then, we just don’t know what.”

Thalia smiled a little wider, revealing her pointed incisors. “You’re very wise. For a human boy.” She playfully shoved him.

“I’m not a boy anymore!” Sin replied. “I hit my majority… three months ago…”

“What’s wrong now?” Thalia asked.

“Light… three months since my birthday. We’ve been on the road for two of them…”

“To a demon of my years, two months is like the blink of an eye.”

“But to a human, two months is a long time.”

Thalia sat down on a fallen log and glanced up at the canopy. “I wonder, human, if our cultures can ever mix. There is far too much that makes us different.”

Sin sat next to her. “I think that might be part of the problem. Instead of focusing on what makes us different, we should focus on what ties us together.”

Thalia smiled again, and this time, it reached her clear blue eyes.

***

Kelrick wrung out his hands. “Why are we doing this anyway? We’ll only get killed.”

Ivan tapped his fingers against the dusty table. “It’s my duty, and Signe’s. The people of Darkrest are living under a tyrant, and we’ve made it our job to dispose of people like Fenris Masgard. Lisana, if you and your company wants to continue on, that’s your choice.”

Damin glanced at the young sorceress. “I’m staying to help. This reminds me too much of what could have happened in Harrisholt if the Chancellor had decided on a different path of action. These people are all but slaves.”

Lisana nodded. “I’m staying too. We’ve got nowhere else to go, for Light’s sake! We came to Darkrest because it was supposed to be safe! The last safe place we had left! What do you expect me to do, shrug and go home?”

Chifumi tugged at Lisana’s ear and whispered, “Uh… we can’t go home. Harrisholt is gone.”

Miika, seated in the rafters, rolled his eyes at the messenger demon in barely suppressed contempt. Anjaru crossed his arms. “This Masgard seems like a swine of Miss Mary’s ilk. It is only right we dethrone him, as a message to all the scum who abuse their powers.”

At that moment, Sin and Thalia returned, dumping their kindling in a wooden rack that was already filled with fuel Kelrick had split. They took their seats at the table. Lisana noted immediately noted that Sin was more at ease in Thalia’s presence than ever before. Secretly, she suspected that her childhood friend was afraid of the Ice Maiden, but that fear was gone now. They seemed almost… friendly.

“I want to get Dusty back,” Sin said softly. “He’s from Harrisholt. He’s part of our family, as much as anyone here is.”

“I miss my mare,” Damin admitted. “If for nothing else, they have all our supplies in their saddlebags, and those we should go back for.”

The door was thrown open again as Signe stalked into the room. She removed an eyepiece Ivan had made some time ago, a talisman that allowed a common person to see protective enchantments.

“I found a gap,” the Forester said. “I can get us into the tower.”

Damin’s stool fell back with a bang as he leapt to his feet. “How?”

“The entrances are protected by binding enchantments. They would hold us in place until Masgard could send his demons to fetch us. The skies are patrolled by avian demons. But the enchantments are very broad, so there would be a way for Lisana and Ivan, working together, to hold them off.”

Illiya jumped down from the rafters. “Masgard is no fool. He would recognize what the ring was, and lock it away somewhere safe. It will be hard to reach.”

Thalia shrugged. “Anjaru and I have experience with infiltration. It should not pose too much trouble to find it and retrieve it.”

Kelrick chewed his lip. “Well, it would be best if there was a distraction to help take attention away from you. Something loud and impossible to ignore. Damin?”

“I think that shouldn’t be too hard to do, between the two of us.”

Sascha finally spoke. “What about Mab? And Anastasia?”

“Who?” Lisana asked.

Illiya sighed. “Mab was one of my demons. Fenris captured her. And Anastasia… is our sister. We know she is still alive, captive at the top of Masgard’s tower.”

“I’ll save them,” Sin said, the words leaping unbidden to his mouth.

“You’re not going alone!” Lisana snapped.

“Of course not. I’m bringing Chifumi with me. She’s good at picking locks. We would break into Henrietta’s pantry all the time to steal treats. Shouldn’t be that much harder getting into a prison.”

“A pantry is one thing!” Signe cried. “A prison is quite another!”

“You’ve never seen Henrietta’s pantry!” Damin chuckled. “All right Sin. If you think you’re capable. Lisana and Ivan will be busy outside holding the counter-enchantment. I think Signe should remain behind to protect them. Take Illiya with you. If you run into trouble, he’ll come find us.”

Miika croaked. “What about Sascha and I?”

“We might need you outside. If we can get the ring out, two more able-bodied men will serve better to cover our tracks.”

Sin nodded in agreement. “When do we strike?”

Ivan looked around the table. “Dawn.”

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