“The horses are soldiers with experience in defensive magic,” muttered Drake as he hopped over a gap in the floor. “Of course they are.”
“Ehno?” asked Sun.
“Nothing,” answered Drake, waving him off with his bound hands. “Don’t mind me.”
Being arrested twice in one week was not a first, but being captive was not Drake’s favorite way to pass time. Sure, this arrest was theoretically for show, but he missed free use of his hands. Mostly he was cranky about being sent on yet another detour when he needed to be meeting up with Rosaliy. Arlana claimed the prisoners Drake needed to free had been deemed “influencers” by Iketa and Dalor, and whether or not that was true, they would serve as a formidable distraction. So she claimed. She also claimed they were horses, so something was getting lost in translation.
Speaking of getting lost in translation, Sun put out an arm. “Slow, wait,” he said in Old Baysellian. Actually, he said “lobster,” but Drake was assuming Sun had mangled a word ending, especially when the footsteps of a guard patrol came down the hallway in the stead of a scuttling crustacean. It was useful they had a language in common, but neither of them knew it particularly well.
Sun chatted with his fellow guards for a bit while Drake tried to look sufficiently upset about his capture. After a brief exchange, Sun pulled Drake onward while the guards continued on their way.
“Sorcess eh Dan-ella—return back,” Sun told him.
“Here?” Drake asked.
Sun nodded. “Ya.”
Did that mean Iketa and Dalor had been successful or not successful?
In an empty hallway, Sun veered into an open room. “Stay here, yes? Quiet.” Sun dug out the knives he had confiscated from his fake prisoner and set them on a lumpy driftwood table. He propped Drake’s grappling hook next to the door as well. “Barnacle seaweed.”
That last one was probably “Back soon.”
Drake had a loose understanding of Sun’s plan. He was intending to trade posts with the guard watching the Naxturae. Simple enough.
Drake’s sun-emblazoned guide had left him in a wooden section of the palace. Harvested driftwoods knotted together with vines made up columns and chairs and bedframes and artwork. Being trapped on a heatsoaked island for centuries seemed to make people eccentric. Crafting furniture from driftwood was one thing, but crafting an entire palace wing from the material seemed like the act of a bored, creative people. Perhaps they should travel more.
Drake had forgotten to ask for the hand restraints to be unlocked, but he had insisted on being locked into the restraints with his hands in front, and he seemed to have a pocket full of hairpins. What kind of person subconsciously pocketed hairpins for later? The kind of person who regularly found himself in hairpin-relevant situations.
By the time he answered his question, his hands were free and he had sheathed his knives. He was just in time to hear footsteps pass down the hallway. Drake waited for Sun anyway, on the off chance there were more guards watching the Naxturae. Since the Naxturae were magic resistant, there were no magic barriers in this section of the palace. That begged the question why they had not escaped, but the answer was—no surprise—getting lost in translation.
Sun poked his head inside the door. “Bisque!” he said cheerfully. Drake had no guess for that one. It seemed to be an exclamation of success, so he followed Sun to a locked door. The keys Drake had taken from the head guard made short work of the door. Maybe freeing the Naxturae would be as easy as a locked door?
When he pulled the door open, he had to shield his eyes from the brightness of the room inside. The palace had been growing darker as night fell, but this room was like walking into the sun.
Giant glowing balls dangled high above a watery pit. Drake squinted and tried to take in the room. What was once a room with a glass floor had been shattered. Below the floor was a rocky pool of water, some sort of underground cove. Drake imagined this had been a grand ballroom, the pool below the glass floor both decorative and a way to keep the room cool. Now, jagged glass penned half a dozen huddled horses in shoulder-deep water. The damp conditions might have been partly welcome; the blazing globes made the room sweltering hot.
“What is this?” Drake asked, flabbergasted.
“No night,” Sun explained, pointing at the nearest globe. “No men.”
Drake could make little of that. “The lights are trapping them?” he guessed.
Sun made a motion like he was juggling invisible balls. “Ya?” he said.
This seemed like a job for Arlana or Rosaliy or Sorceress Issabeth or someone who had a clue what was going on.
“Can you turn them off?”
“Magic light,” Sun said. For some reason, that meant no.
Drake and Sun both stared out uselessly, shading their eyes.
One of the horses approached and whinnied.
“Any ideas?” Drake asked him.
The black horse snorted and tossed his head at Drake.
“I’ve got a grappling hook,” said Drake, slipping it off his back. “The rope is strong, but you can’t exactly climb a rope.”
The horse tossed his head and jerked his head up toward the globe above him.
“Doesn’t that seem like a bad idea?” Drake asked.
The horse cocked his head.
Drake aimed for the closest globe, which was tough work. Looking at the brilliant globe was impossible. Through squinted eyes, he could tell each globe dangled from a chain affixed to the vaulted ceiling. Drake hoped to catch the chain with the prongs of the hook and yank the globe into the water.
Sun and the horses took several steps back. They need not have been concerned. The first shot was a complete miss. The grappling hook shot wide and lost speed faster than anticipated, not reaching the globe. Not being able to look at the target was a huge problem.
Drake dragged the hook back in and readjusted, trying to balance likelihood of success with his desired distance from the swirling ball of magical light. His attempts at caution were for naught, however. To be in range, he needed to stand directly underneath the globe and shoot up. Was he more likely to grappling hook himself in the face as the pronged metal hurtled to the ground or to crush himself with a blazing, magical ball? Arlana would have been able to answer his question last week. Now, he was going to have to find out the answer for himself.
He had to squeeze his eyes shut, unable to watch the trajectory of the hook as he pressed the trigger, but he heard the globe shatter above him. Goop rained down. Eventually, he braved opening his eyes. Glowing goo had sprayed everywhere, causing the water and glass to glow faintly. Drake hadn’t anticipated these things being so fragile, but the room was a tiny bit darker, especially when the glowing blobs began sinking. There were at least five more globes in the still-bright room, so the loss of one was not enough.
Shattering the globe had worked better than Sun expected. “Ya,” he cheered, raising his fist in the air like they shared success. Drake, too, was glad no one had been incinerated. Then Sun took off like he had an idea.
The horses had backed to the far side of the pool, flicking ears and monitoring the goings-on. Drake scraped an errant glowing blob from his neck. It was blistering hot.
Sun returned with vicious-looking sharpened spears. Together, they shattered globe after globe, creating a pool of glowing water and dimly-glowing walls. Both of them were covered in glowing specks by the end of the ordeal. Hopefully being sprayed with magical glowing goo would have no long-term effects.
The horses waded over to a darkened area. One of them shifted into the form of a man. “Almost,” he gasped, “I can’t quite control—” He finished that statement with a snort, a horse once more.
Drake had never had things easy, but turning into a horse was a trial he was glad he had never endured.
He eyed the location of the last dazzling globe in the center of the room. He could not reach that one from the unbroken floor.
Without wasting time thinking about all the poor decisions made recently necessitating this one, Drake hopped into the dark water below. The water of the underground cove was surprisingly warm, almost unpleasantly so. The magical sunlight was turning the entire room into an oven. He swam to the center, where his head barely crested the water if he stood on his toes. Firing a grappling hook while swimming was a challenge he was about to attempt when his whole body shifted, being pushed up. A horse had pushed itself underneath him.
“Thank you,” Drake said, feeling rather odd about the whole situation.
Sitting on the horse which Drake preferred not to think of as sometimes a person got Drake a few lengths closer to the swirling light. He fired, and the globe shattered over his head. The horse was smart enough to duck under the water, but Drake felt a smattering of drops on him, like slimy, boiling rain.
He ducked under the water to wash it off, and when he came up, a man stood in front of him.
“Well done. Thank you,” said the dark-haired Naxturaen man.
Drake wrapped up the rope of the grappling hook and locked it into place, his ability to pretend like everything was normal strained after the events of the day. Introductions were rushed, happening somewhere between Sun carefully hauling everyone onto the jagged shelf of glass and Drake expressing his hope the Naxturae could bring down the magic barrier trapping the rest of the scattered prisoners. Drake was nervous about their response considering his record thusfar, but this group of prisoners was eager to be free and enthusiastic about helping. Finally.
“How long will it be night?” asked the dark-haired man named Kaylix.
“Hours,” Drake answered. “Sun just set.”
“Good,” said Talyrin, the leader. “Any idea what sort of magic the barrier happens to be or where to find it?”
“Sun, I mean, Xayl might,” Drake offered. He had done his job, and he wanted out of here.
“Kaylix,” Talyrin ordered, “take everyone to go and work on bringing down the magic trapping the prisoners and clear the prison of guards. Then send Faeliz to treat the High Sorceress.”
Faeliz winced. Drake did not envy him his job.
Kaylix spoke some Flifary, so he chattered away with Sun.
“Let’s go free the Seer,” Talyrin said.
That must have been directed toward Drake. Drake wanted to point out he tried that already. With the prison on the brink of being overtaken, Iketa and Dalor were likely to panic. Trapped enemies were the most dangerous kind. Drake really wanted to make sure Rosaliy was safe, but it looked like he was taking one more detour.
“Thank you again,” Talyrin insisted, as he and Drake made their way through palace hallways back to Arlana’s section. Now that night had fallen, lights on the wall and ceiling glowed. In sections heavy with vines, nocturnal flowers opened and glowed with blue and pink lights of their own.
Talyrin shivered after passing under a glowing lamp in the middle of a hallway.
“Does light cause you to change into a horse?” asked Drake.
“This form is normally less fragile at night,” Talyrin answered, rubbing his arm as it shifted from pale to dark fur and back again. “The Flifary must harness magic from the sun.”
“Not that I’m an expert on magic, but that seems dangerous, doesn’t it? Drawing power from the sun?”
“You make an excellent point,” Talyrin agreed.
Then Talyrin asked for an abridged explanation of everything Drake knew. Drake soon understood why. The missing royal children were his grandchildren. No wonder the Flifary had been so eager to keep an eye on Talyrin and his soldiers.
“No leads on them?” Talyrin asked.
Drake wished he had better news. “Hale might have been the last person who saw them, but he remembers nothing.”
“That is almost comforting,” Talyrin decided. “If Daniella hid the children, they won’t be found until she intends them to be found.”
The tone of his response surprised Drake. “You seem more confident in her than most.”
“No one who knows Daniella could doubt her competence,” Talyrin answered, distracted by not tumbling into the open floor of the stone section of the palace.
“Bad choice of words,” Drake admitted. “I was tactfully saying a lot of people have grudges against her.”
“If I held grudges, she would be near the top of the list,” he answered.
He held up a hand for silence and waved Drake behind a pillar. Drake heard the sounds of a Flifary patrol well after Talyrin. The soldier took up a small bow on his back and withdrew an arrow no larger than his forearm. Those arrows could not possibly stop a Flifary man.
Talyrin drew back the arrow anyway, and in a smooth motion, he spun and fired at the first guard. The arrow hit the man on his bare shoulder, but instead of piercing him, the arrow exploded in an electric crackle, blue lines wrapping the man in a tight web. He fell backwards, frozen. Talyrin had nocked a new arrow and fired before the second guard was able to collect himself and rush forward. The arrow stopped him much the same way. Drake wondered how the Flifary had disabled the Naxturaen soldiers in the first place.
After locking the men up in a nearby room, they hurried to Arlana. Hopefully Talyrin would have more success with her than Drake.
Seer Arlana was waiting for them.
Drake offered Talyrin the gold-striped concha, and the Naxturaen man took it through the barrier to give it to a reluctant Arlana.
“Great,” said Drake. “If everybody’s free, I need to go find Rosaliy.”
“Yes,” Arlana agreed, “as soon as you take me to Daniella.”
That was not agreeing.
Drake took Arlana and Talyrin to the makeshift prison cell where Issabeth was weakly trying to shoo away her Naxturean caretaker. The man took a break to give a report to Talyrin.
“Most of the prison is under control, but the barrier is giving Kaylix some trouble,” Talyrin translated. “He says it should—”
He was interrupted by a pop and a trembling of the air around them. Daniella tested the doorway and found it passable.
Talyrin announced his intention to find Kaylix and finish retaking the prison unless the High Sorceress had other plans. She mumbled something about needing to get the pearl back from Iketa and Dalor. He must have taken that as authorization, because he left soon after. Drake should have been off himself, but he was distracted by Daniella and Arlana.
“The Flifary have activated the divination room with the pearl,” Daniella was saying. “How big a problem is this?”
“The pearl is no divination stone,” answered Arlana. “The cobbled together magic may distract them as much as help them.”
“It seemed to be generating plenty of power,” Daniella countered. “Where is their weapon? If they wanted to destroy Katyrinna, it would be near the prison.”
“Yes,” Arlana agreed half-heartedly, “but their intention was specifically to wipe out their magical competition. Without Rin, their weapon would be wasted. They won’t use it.”
“Even if their original target was Katryinna,” Daniella disagreed, “after losing the prison, Iketa and Dalor will be desperate. Desperation combined with destructive power leads to catastrophic decisions.”
“You always did have a knack for improvisation,” Arlana admitted. “I know where they were originally intending to place the weapon, yes.”
“Let’s go,” Daniella ordered.
“Maybe Rosaliy has found something,” Drake suggested, not really wanting to wedge himself into this argument.
Daniella nodded. “Good, she’s here. She’ll be needed. Seer, come.”
Arlana hesitated. “I can tell you where to look,” she offered. “I’m not sure how useful I’ll be otherwise.”
“We’re fixing your mess,” Daniella pointed out with an icy stare Drake would not want to be on the opposing end of. Even Arlana acquiesced.
They encountered an occasional bound guard complaining with muffled yells on their way out of the palace. Despite their small numbers, Talyrin’s soldiers had worked fast.
Drake grabbed a lit torch from the wall. “Which way to the temple?” he asked, before he was immediately interrupted by a breathless Zaphia.
“Drake! What happened to you? No, that’s not important right now, but, really, did you know you’re glowing? Anyway, Rosaliy needs— Are you the Seer?”
Arlana bobbed her head in acknowledgement, and Zaphia’s jaw went slack.
“It’s such an honor to meet— Wait, should I be doing something? Bowing, not looking you in the eye?” Zaphia did half an awkward curtsy of sorts and studied the ground.
“Certainly not,” Arlana answered. Zaphia peeked up at her. “It’s Zaphia, isn’t it?”
Zaphia jerked her feather-laden head up and down.
Drake would have interrupted this, but he had his own problems when a tiny ball of fur came hurtling at him from the dark treetops. He nearly dropped his torch and screamed, but he managed to hold himself together. Nobody was paying attention to him anyway.
“You’ve always been a curious child,” Arlana murmured. “Never content to settle for your surroundings. Always wanting something more.”
Quita dug into Drake’s shoulder with her feet and screeched frantically in his ear. Now he was listening to two unnecessary conversations.
“I’m so sorry I helped them,” Zaphia blurted out. “I had no idea how bad they were.”
“What is she holding?” Daniella asked Drake quietly. Quita was clutching something in her hands, but there was nothing there.
Drake scooped up a half squashed banana and sliced off a tempting chunk.
“’Bad’ describes so many levels of gray,” mused Arlana. “They are ruthless, selfish, and greedy, a combination which makes them dangerous for sure. But they are also ambitious, persuasive, and persevering, which often combine for positive results. A person is a complicated combination of their inclinations and the events that nudge them.”
Was this conversation really necessary right now?
He wiggled the hunk of banana in front of Quita. The monkey chattered quietly, looking from the invisible lump she was clutching to the tempting snack. She dropped the object in her hands to grab for the chunk of banana. Daniella caught what she dropped. She smeared it against Drake’s arm, and some of the glowing ooze rubbed off on what was an invisible stone.
“But we need to stop them, right?” Zaphia asked uncertainly.
“Yes, these are people who should not have power and necessitate punishment,” answered Arlana.
Daniella shot Drake a look as she held up the faintly glowing item in her palm. “Where is Rosaliy?” she broke in to the other conversation.
Zaphia was happy to answer. “Oh! Iketa and Dalor used the pearl to activate the divination room. Rosaliy is stopping them.”
“That’s good to know,” rang out a mocking voice, “and I thought my biggest threats were right here.”
Iketa stepped into the torch-lit entrance of the temple.
“Iketa, you need to be stopped,” insisted Arlana firmly, raising her hands.
“If anything happens to me,” Iketa warned, gripping an amulet in her palm, “my enchanted minions here will rip your friends to shreds defending me.”
A rumbling growl punctuated her statement, and glowing eyes appeared in the jungle.
Arlana could do any number of things in this situation, but that was the problem. She had to choose one. Drake could practically see her debating the likelihood of cause and effect, action and reaction at play here.
Iketa grinned at the Seer’s hesitation. “Can you stop them all in time?”