I sat next to Elora in the underbrush. The sun had long since set as we waited for our chance to move across no man's land and into the Dunholdian encampment. Rain had started to fall just after we left the band, adding another layer of discomfort to the Princess, who I could feel shivering as she gripped the hilt of the dagger attached to her waist.
After Boldrin had given his speech, I had gone in search of some armour for the Princess and I. Unfortunately, the Brigade didn't have much equipment in surplus. After all, Boldrin had just visited Myrin and sold off whatever excess the band had at the time. I did manage to find a leather cuirass which was about her size. It wasn't much, but it was the best I could do with the time we had. At least she would have some protection if she was attacked, though I had no intention of letting anyone near her if they were an enemy. I'm hoping that we wouldn't be discovered before we Bonded. After that point it would fall upon me to do the heavy lifting, something I was looking forward to more and more as the Princess and I waited next to our team. I myself had managed to find a chain mail hauberk. It wouldn't do much against a Weapon and it was no defence when compared to Armour, but it would have to be enough.
“You keep moving, Orin,” Elora whispered into my ear.
I grinned and turned to face her. She looked different with her long hair tied back in a severe knot. Tessa and Padma had both pushed her to just chop it off but Elora had been horrified by the very idea of doing something so extreme.
“Sorry, Princess. I just want to get started, patience has never been my strong suit before battle.” I replied, facing the encampment once more.
Alec should have already taken out the patrol by now and I had every confidence he could do it. The only thing we had been initially been worried about when he and his team had set out was the possibility of a Knight joining the patrol. Elora had been quick to say that the chances of something like that happening were low at best. Knights were above the common rabble in terms of status and martial might. There was no way a pair would lower themselves to going out amongst the common soldiers of Dunhold's army. At least, not when they believed they were safe from attack.
That mistake would cost them.
“I feel it too. I just want to get this over with,” Elora sounded small, her voice quaking slightly as she finished speaking. I examined her more closely and noticed that her breathing had picked up and her pale skin had gone whiter still. Her nerves were getting to her and I could understand why.
I reached over and laid a hand upon her own, feeling the tremble in her fingers and the dampness of her skin from the sputtering rain.
“Don't be afraid. I'll be with you to the very end, so all you have to do is follow me. We're going to get through this, Elora. Deep breath in, deep breath out,” I made sure she matched her breathing with mine, the hitches improving before disappearing entirely and the shaking of her hands stopping beneath my touch.
“T-thank you,” Elora muttered, “I feel a bit better now,”
“Good,” I nodded, looking around to check on the others only to see Tessa's face quickly turn away from me, her sharp stare fixing upon the army of the enemy once again.
Oh, so she hadn't stopped that annoying habit yet. Brilliant.
“You ready?” I asked her, the question enough to make her body tense but not to take her eyes off our targets.
“Of course, I'm ready, Orin. I always am. Just make sure you don't do anything stupid.” She snapped.
I chuckled at the dangerous mercenary, “I won't. But that goes for you too. We don't want another repeat of Redoris.”
Tessa clenched her jaw and finally flicked her eyes over to meet mine. “You did not save me at Redoris.”
“What was that?” Elora asked, she was looking slightly better but her thoughts were no doubt uneasy from focusing on the task ahead.
“Redoris is a small town on the coast of Andapa, near the border with the United Duchies of Uldin,” I started to reply, my smile getting wider as Tessa's frown intensified.
“Your Princess doesn't need to hear this story, Orin. Stop it. Now.” Tessa's eyes narrowed in warning.
I snorted at my friend, “What are you going to do? Stab me?”
“I'd consider it,” Tess replied dangerously, a dagger already in her hand. Shit, I hadn't even noticed her draw the bloody thing.
“So, anyway, Redoris,” I said, turning back to Elora and ignoring Tess completely. If she wanted to stab me she could go right ahead, but I had a feeling she would control her natural inclination, especially this close to battle. “The Brigade were hired to take care of a few outcasts, Nariti tribesmen who were cast out of their lands.”
“The Nariti?” Elora asked, her eyes widening at the mention of the mighty warriors, “I've read about them. I thought they all stayed within the Plains?”
“Most do, Princess,” Dumas spoke up respectfully from behind us, Padma sitting beside him with a bored expression on her face. “But some commit crimes so severe that they are sent into exile. They go west to seek a new home and, to the Nariti, finding home usually requires them to take it from another.”
As soon as Elora turned away from him, Dumas flashed me a self-satisfied smirk. As if him answering Elora's question had allowed him to defeat me in some small way. It was ridiculous, but it still got to me, annoyance growing as I rolled my eyes at the warrior. It seems our rivalry was well and truly alive.
“So what happened when you got there?” Elora asked, looking up at me.
“Well, there was only about twenty of them in total, so me, Tessa and a few of the others were sent to liberate the village.”
“I don't remember them being particularly skilled,” Padma yawned, “I just remember them shouting a lot in their strange tongue.”
“They were more skilled than they appeared,” Tessa said, her dagger once again in it's sheath.
Padma snorted, “To you maybe. The only memory I've really got of that mission was us all coming home and Fendi telling everyone at the top of his lungs about how Orin saved your life.”
Tessa opened her mouth to protest, her face red and ready to tear into Padma before I touched her arm gently,
“I know it wasn't like that, Tess. They all know it as well. Padma's just trying to get a rise out of you,” I said, turning to give Padma a chastising look. She shrugged and yawned again in response, leaning back on her hands to get more comfortable.
“Let go of me, Orin,” Tessa muttered, ripping her arm from my grip and leaning forward to wrap her arms around her knees in frustrated silence.
“Alright,” I said before turning to Elora, “So we went in and took care of the Nariti. While we were fighting, Tessa slipped in some blood and fell. I stopped a tribesman from attacking her and that was that. It was only really a big deal because Fendi made it so. You see, Tessa is one of the most skilled members of the band. She never really makes mistakes in combat and Fendi wouldn't let any of us forget about the one time she did.”
“Every fucking day,” Tessa rolled her eyes and tightened the grip of her legs.
“Ah, I see,” Elora said after a moment of silence had passed between the four of us, “I still need to say thank you, Tessa.”
“Thank me? For what?” The young mercenary asked.
“Well, Orin told me that you saved his life in the Empire. If not for you, I would never have met him on that stage.” Elora tried to smile at my difficult friend but she stared straight through the Princess before chuckling darkly.
“Yes. Hurray for me,” Tessa replied bitterly, dropping her chin on her knees.
“Enough of this,” Boldrin said, our band leader sitting a few feet away from us, his eyes trained upon the camp, “Look, it's Alec. They're returning.”
I immediately trained my eyes on the patrol, leaning forward to get a better look at the approaching sight.
It must have been Alec's group because they had a wagon with them. The idea was to take out the soldiers and then claim they had found some abandoned merchandise on the road. No one would look at it twice considering it was all just booze and it would serve as a passable alibi for returning to camp earlier than expected. At least, that was the hope.
Since the sun had set, the encampment was lit up with fires and torches that ringed the perimeter. Thankfully, the light didn't shine that far into the clear area between the trees and the camp proper. We had already picked our entry point, directly ahead of us. The guards on watch seemed lax and over the course of the last three hours had only walked the edge of the camp twice. Three of them sat at a table set up next to one of the large red tents, an exact copy of the others gathered around it, with the exception of the peasant's sorry excuses for cover closer to the wall.
The six of us watched with bated breath as one of the band, presumably Alec, raising a hand in greeting at the guard waiting to welcome them back. There was a short exchange of words before they were waved on through. The tension that was in my heart lifted at the sight and I exhaled my held breath, relief flooding my system.
The first part of the plan was done and with no casualties. Alec only had to reach his targets and use some of old Brin's brew to make sure they went up like a bonfire. After that, it would fall upon us.
Boldrin turned to us and smiled, showing teeth that could barely been seen in the dark that followed the sun's descent. The lack of light probably made him look more villainous than reassuring, but the gesture was welcomed by us nonetheless.
“We're close now. Be ready to run as soon as we see smoke. We know the plan. I'll lead with Tessa, Elora and Orin in the centre with Padma and Dumas following. We won't have a second chance at this. We will be discovered, it's just a question of when. The longer we can put it off the better, so keep your heads down and weapons at the ready. Got it?”
We all nodded at his words, our grim expressions morphing into ones of purpose. Boldrin was right: No second chances. This was our only hope of getting the King and Queen out alive, as well a the Brigade. Elora and I would just have to do our part and fight off some Knights.
I had suspected when we had first fought Craven that he was on the weaker side of the spectrum in terms of Knighthood. He was stronger than Elora and I at the time of our battle, but not by very much. The Knights we would be facing today would be warriors, graduates of the Hall of Tyra. They had worked hard to become as powerful as they were today so to have any chance of winning I would have to fight dirty. I didn't fucking care if I had to use our Resonant Gift of Strength to bite someone's arm off, I would not fall. Not before I had fulfilled my obligation to the Princess.
We watched and waited, our brief reprieve of storytelling having come to an end. Tessa had always hated that tale but I had told it anyway. Not to mock her, but to keep the Princess from losing herself to panic. She looked much better than she had initially but I had been the same way before my first real fight. My hands had sweated, my heart had pounded and all I wanted to do was sit down to try and let my stomach settle. That all changed once you were in it. In the thick of combat there was no room to think, only to react. You became something primal, giving into instincts that you normally kept tightly controlled. It was a release of a sort, a freedom that I had yet to find anywhere else.
“There,” Boldrin whispered and pointed out into the sky slightly to our right.
I saw nothing at first but then I noticed the shift in the air, a shimmer between us and the stars. Smoke was rising but it didn't seem to have been noticed yet. I tightened the grip on my hilt and made to stand, joined by the others. I took Elora's hand in mine and squeezed it reassuringly. I would hold onto her until we were back in the light, to keep her from tripping over an errant root or stone.
“Eyes on your feet as we move. Keep up and don't slow down. We'll never find you in this blasted darkness if you stray too far,” Boldrin, hefting his great axe and placing it upon his shoulder, his grip white around it's haft. “Let's move.”
Tessa followed after Boldrin, with Elora and I close behind. I focused on Tess' feet in front of me, forgetting the camp until we were close enough for it to matter. Elora was doing well, her breathing was heavy but she kept her footing and was as steady as a rock as she ran alongside me.
We had been on the move for nearly thirty seconds when the first shouts arose from the camp and I risked taking my eyes off Tessa and looking towards the source of the disturbance.
The flames were rising.
Three of the great red tents were already on fire and I could see a flurry of movement as soldiers and commoners alike woke to see what all the commotion was about. I saw a few running around with buckets, but even as I watched another of the tents went up in flame and their voices of confusion were changed to one's of distress.
I spotted the trebuchets in the distance, all of them separated by about a dozen feet. They all seemed to be intact which was somewhat worrying, but I reminded myself that this was still the start of the raid. Alec couldn't be everywhere at once and even with thirty men, he would have to be cautious with where he assigned his resources. Him setting fire to the tents first made sense as it could draw some of the men guarding the trebuchets away from their posts to help contain the fires. We could only hope that would be the case.
“Spirit, Alec works fast, don't he?” I heard Dumas say behind me, “Shit, he might burn the entire camp down at this rate.”
I grimaced, thinking that unlikely. “They can't avoid detection forever, I just hope they manage to take out the trebuchets before the gates to the city open.”
The speed of Alec's attack made us all want to catch up, so we pushed ourselves further to reach our destination.
Luckily, upon arrival, two of the three guards at the little watch station had taken off to see what all the fuss was about. The remaining guard was young and was watching the rising smoke with an expression of worry on his face.
Boldrin emerged from the darkness, his axe already falling as the young man turned to see what was going on. Boldrin's strength, while not as potent as myself with Elora, was more that enough to send his axe straight through the thin metal of the man's helmet and lodge it in his skull. The young guard managed little more than a sputtering gasp before his eyes turned glassy and he died.
Elora gasped as Tessa, Padma, Dumas and I all drew our weapons and looked into the maze of crimson tents, our eyes peeled for any sign of the enemy. I released my grip on Elora's hand and walked over to a crossroad in the mass of fabric, looking left and right and not seeing any obvious threat.
“Clear,” I hissed, and made my way back to the Princess, who stared down at the young boy with the cracked skull, her eyes wide and shining. “Elora,”
The Princess blinked and turned to me, the shock on her face evident for all to see, “S-sorry, Orin. I'm fine.”
I nodded and smiled at her gently before pulling her over to where Boldrin and the others were waiting for us. Dumas was smiling, his love of battle almost the match of my own. Padma looked bored, as she often did, spinning the hilt of her thin sabre in hand. Tessa looked as tense as always, like a panther getting ready to strike.
Boldrin nodded at the five of us and gave us a a signal to follow. We would try our hardest to avoid detection, but we couldn't truly pull that off in a camp so large. If we ran into any enemies we would have to kill them before one could raise the alarm and, thanks to Alec's distraction, the amount of soldiers we would ran into would be limited at best. If we ran into a Knight we would have to hold out hope that Elora's limited soul sense would be able to tell us so we could avoid them.
Tessa took the next kill as we rounded another corner, the walls getting closer and closer as we navigated our way through the labyrinth. Two red armoured warriors stood leaning against a pair of barrels, both looking towards us tiredly as we approached.
One of them opened his mouth to shout upon seeing Boldrin, his hand falling to grasp the hilt of his short sword only for his throat to open before he could utter a single word. Blood poured down his front, painting his crimson armour a darker hue as his friend watched on in horror. Before the second could even think to react, Tessa had stabbed him multiple times in the neck, her method clean and efficient. The man was so shocked by his brief and inevitable end that he didn't even try to speak. He just stared into the impassive face of his killer who watched him die with not a sliver of sympathy in her eyes.
“Tessa is quite... frightening.” Elora whispered to me with a shiver.
I gave a strained smile, “Tessa's speed means that most don't see her until it's too late. The element of surprise is where she thrives.”
“I can see that,” Elora replied as we walked past the two dead bodies.
Dumas and Padma took care of two who had appeared at our back, though Dumas nearly let his one get away before Padma stepped in and put an end to his opponent with a single slash of her sword.
“Idiot! Don't play with them for fucks sake,” Padma snapped in derision, leaving her brother on the ground where he had tripped.
Dumas grumbled but said nothing in response to his younger sister. Wise, in my opinion. He knew as well as I that matching Padma in a battle of tongues was no easy task. We continued on in silence. We had a few more run ins with Dunholdian troops but they were few and far between. I couldn't see the damage that Alec's growing fire was causing to the encampment, but I knew for certain that it was working in keeping the soldiers off their game. More often than not we managed to avoid fighting by taking a longer route through the sea of tents. We came within a few feet of being discovered several times but the fires, combined with the clear need to prevent them spreading, managed to keep us hidden. Shit, some of the soldiers simply ran past us towards the clear and present danger, not even glancing at us once.
“Gates ahead,” Boldrin said, no longer staying silent, drawing his sword with his left hand as he leaned his axe against his shoulder. “You're up, Orin. Let's get this done.”
I nodded and stepped up beside the leader with Elora following. We had emerged from the maze into a clearing, with a single large firepit at it's centre. Further ahead I could see the beginnings of the peasant tents, all looking decrepit and patched with whatever material they could get their hands on. I saw more than a few of the common-folk milling around, looking confused and unsure what to do with themselves. The camp was a cacophony right now, with voices rising left and right, all wanting to know exactly what was happening but the answers weren't coming, adding to the chaos.
Beyond the clearing and the forest of tents were the grand wooden gates of Dunwellen. They towered over us, at least twenty feet tall. The marks upon their surface a reminder of how dire the King and Queen's situation was as they huddled within, desperate for a solution.
“Spirit, I hope she comes soon,” I said between clenched teeth. I would like to have moved a little closer to the gates, but here would have to do. Even if the Queen wasn't Bonded, one of the other masters would be and Elora was sure that even one of them would be able to recognise her signature.
“She will,” Elora said with a stern conviction, her hand taking mine and holding onto it so tightly that it hurt, “I know she will. All we have to do is hold. This is the perfect time for her to attack.”
“Then what do you say, Princess? Bond with me? Just one last time?” I grinned at Elora, waiting for her answer only to see her returning smile falter slightly.
“That's right. This will be the last time.” Elora replied sadly and rubbed the back of my hand with her thumb, “Then lets make it one to remember.”
I nodded and turned to the band leader, no longer seeing the need to keep my voice low. “Boldrin! Hold back the small fry, we'll deal with the Knights!”
Boldrin let loose a booming laugh that echoed across the encampment. Shit, I wouldn't be surprised if they could hear it behind the walls of Dunwellen itself. “You've got it, lad! Dumas, Padma, take to the north and west. Tessa, you and I will cover the south and take care of any curious commoners. Lets go!”
Elora became light, Etherin taking over her body as she turned once again into the shimmering petals of her soul self and sank beneath my skin. I felt her walk into my soul, felt the power of the Bond roar within my chest as strength flooded every inch of my body, my senses sharpening and allowing me to hear and see further than any human. I could smell the smoke in the air now, could hear the cries of distress as the soldiers asked questions into the empty air.
Then I felt the Knights. They all turned towards me, focusing on my shimmering black flames that spat silver sparks in clear challenge. My dark soul laughed at their puny power and called for them to come and cull themselves beneath my sword.
I drew my blade and threw my scabbard to the side, roaring into the air as I felt Elora inundate me with the power of her Gifts.
* * *
Queen Gida of Venos sat in her small and remote office in the central castle of Dunwellen, staring at the sheets of parchment before her in obvious dismay.
They had been trapped within these cursed walls for nearly a month now. Despite efforts from herself and the other Masters, Dunhold had continued to keep them contained. Three days ago they had gotten desperate. Desperate enough to try something so foolish that had she been thinking rationally she never would have tried to attempt it at all. But rations had been running low. It wasn't just her army that she had to think about now, but the people of Dunwellen themselves. They were not soldiers, but common citizens caught up in an extreme situation. Julian's decree that all of their rations would be split among the common-folk was not a decision that was met with any great amount of acceptance. Her people were hungry and growing more so by the day. Tempers were thin and flaring across the ten thousand that remained of the fifty thousand Gida had first arrived in this city with. The defeat they had suffered at the hands of Felman had been absolute. No, that wasn't true. She had been outplayed and outsmarted by a child. One barely older than her own daughter.
Ivander of the House Auster. A crippled Knight confined to a wheelchair. He had sent her several demands over the past few days, which included the complete surrender and 'return' of the Kingdom of Venos to it's rightful ruler, Grand King Felman of Dunhold.
A preposterous request. This as well had lent itself to her decision to attempt a counter-attack. One which had ended badly for both sides, Dunhold losing thousands of it's meat shields to Gida and her powerful Knights. The problem was that Dunhold could afford to lose their men, while Gida could not. Every warrior lost was another sliver of her collective might. That attack had been ill-advised and she knew that the Masters under her command were unhappy with her, but if they had a better idea then they were welcome to suggest one instead of muttering in the background like a bunch of complaining courtiers.
She had tried to sent messages to Myrin, but her attempts had ended in failure. All of her options immediately snuffed out by the number of Knights Ivander possessed under his command. He himself was a newly Bonded and had little power, but the Knights who followed him were another matter. While Dunhold had only one pairing that were recognised as Masters, they were kept near Felman at all times to protect the mad King from the invisible threats that only he could see, his mental issues aiding the Queen for once. However, every other Knight that Ivander had was at least at the rank of Adept, with two Journeymen among their number.
Rank itself was a poor metric for gauging the power of a Knight. After all, Gida and her husband had only been recognised as Masters recently but had never lost to Vera and Annabelle, who had claimed the title long before they themselves did. Still, it gave one an idea of what to expect.
While Gida would happily pit her own Knights against those of Dunhold in combat, Ivander knew that would end in their defeat, hence the unwashed masses that stood at her front door, ready to throw themselves in front of her Weapon to slow her down and waste her strength. There was tens of thousands of them out there even after the failed escape, while there was only two hundred Knights with Gida. They might kill ten, twenty, or even thirty thousand peasants before falling, but fall they would. It would just be a matter of waiting on Ivander's part before he moved in with that twisted Smith of his to mop things up.
A knock at the door of the old study caused Gida to pull herself free of her tumultuous thoughts. She had been thinking in circles all day and had yet to find a solution to their problem. Something that her husband could no doubt sense.
Gida didn't bother to respond and instead sent a pulse over the Bond, one which was returned a second later before the door opened and revealed the soft face of her husband, King Julian of Venos.
Unlike Elora, Gida had not met her future husband until she was ten years old. She had hated him immediately.
Gida thought him soft and without substance, another sycophantic politician like his father had seemed to be. Julian was thirteen and instructed by both their parents to try and get to know her better. The two had planned then for them to pair together as Knight and Smith, though neither Julian nor Gida had known it at the time. It had taken years before Gida could even stand to be around him and when that happened she had discovered just how unlike his pretentious father he had been. He was a soft-spoken and gentle man most of time, something he passed onto their beloved daughter, but it was the fire in his heart that Gida had fallen in love with. How he raged in silence, his eyes ablaze, his words soft but destructive. As quiet as he was, his passions burned bright and had drawn Gida in as soon as she was wise enough to look below the surface.
King Julian was a tall man with shining blue eyes and the same bright blonde hair that Elora sported now. His smile was soft and warm, filled with the love he felt for his wife as he walked forward with a tray balanced precariously in his hands.
“Hello, my love. Are you alright?” Julian asked in his soft voice, walking over to the desk after kicking the door closed and placing the tray of steaming soup and bread in front of her, along with a small bottle of wine he had no doubt pilfered from the supplies downstairs. The meal was simple, but would be a welcome reprieve after a day without sustenance.
Gida sighed as she stared at the soup, sitting down in the chair behind her desk as Julian sat opposite her, ripping off a piece of bread and popping it into his mouth as he leaned back in his seat.
“I'm fine,” Gida said, her eyes moving between the soup and parchment before finally settling on the wine. She opened the bottle and poured a glass for herself and then her husband. “I can't find anything, Julian. We have maybe three days of food left, if that. We're running out of time.”
Julian raised an eyebrow at his Knight, “Giving up, Gida? Already? No, that doesn't sound like you. We've fought Dunhold before and been triumphant. This shall be no different.”
“They have us at a disadvantage, we're trapped here by that Auster fool-”
“A child, Gida. Skilled perhaps, but a child nonetheless.”
Gida narrowed her eyes, “That may be. But this child somehow managed to nearly wipe out half of the armies of Venos in a single attack. Our Kingdom is in danger, Julian. How can you not see that?”
Julian chewed on his lip for a second as he stared at his wife, lifting a hand to scratch at his recently acquired beard. “I have faith, Gida. I won't say that the situation isn't difficult, but it is far from over. I know that we will win this fight. Elora is not ready for the crown and I'll be damned if I allow our daughter to ascend the throne unprepared.”
Gida sighed and leaned back in her chair. Another thing she both loved and hated about Julian was his sense of optimism. To him, there was no problem under the sun that couldn't be solved with a little dedication and elbow grease. It was times like this that Gida envied that attitude. What she wouldn't give to see things the way he did.
“She'll have married by now, you know,” Gida smiled, something she rarely did for anyone other than her husband, “Three weeks ago. I wish we could have seen it.”
Julian walked around the table and sat on the edge of Gida's desk, taking her hand in his and kissing her fingers gently, “I'm sure she was radiant. We're just lucky she took her looks from you.”
Gida rolled her eyes at the King's attempt at flattery but enjoyed it all the same. Gida had never thought herself beautiful, but constant assertions by her husband over the years had helped her self-esteem in that regard. She was stronger than was normal for a woman she supposed, with a lithe figure that rippled with muscle gained through years of training. Her hair was light brown, the same shade as her father, and she had inherited the golden eyes of House Brand, said to be a symbol of the royal blood since the founding of Venos. She had always believed she had never suited the honey coloured eyes, but she was happy they suited her daughter so well. Gida would be hard-pressed to think of something more beautiful than her only child.
“Will she be alright? The journey to the Hall is long, and there are many dangers along the way.” Gida said hesitantly.
Julian stared at his wife with a twinkle in his eye, “She will be fine, love. She'll have Cellus with her and you know the boy won't let anything happen to her. Best she's away from all this anyway. We don't want her doing anything rash.”
Gida thought on her daughter a moment longer. She had not been the most present of mothers for Elora, especially during the formative years after her birth. She had tried her best in the beginning, she truly had, but she felt she wasn't much good as a parent. Much of the duties of that sort fell to the maids and to Julian. Gida always had an excuse to spend less and less time with Elora as the years went on. Despite swearing otherwise, the Queen had ended up emulating her father and his absence from her own life. It was strange how when everything seemed lost that one looked back on their experiences and thought about what they would do differently. Gida promised that when she did get out of here, she would try harder with the girl. Perhaps go for a walk or something? Elora enjoyed that sort of thing, right? Walking in the gardens?
“What are Elora's hobbies?” Gida asked before she could stop herself, her skin flushing near the roots when her husband gave her a smirk in response.
“Hobbies? You mean, apart from Cellus?” Julian laughed and Gida joined him. She may have been absent in most parts of Elora's life but even she knew about how much the Princess loved the young Duke.
“Yes, my foolish Smith, apart from Cellus,”
“Well, she does enjoy working at that orphanage down in the Commons,” Julian mused, “Perhaps you could join her in visiting it one of these days?”
Gida sputtered and grimaced under the suggestive gaze of her husband.
“How do you see through me so easily?” Gida asked, her tone more than a little defensive and annoyed at her husband's way of perceiving her intentions.
Julian's eyes softened and he leaned forwards to give his wife a kiss before pulling back, “I have regrets too, my love. I taught her much, but didn't spend as much time with her as I wished to. Perhaps we could go together one day. A family outing?”
Gida chuckled, “A family outing? We're the royal family, Julian, not commoners.”
“Perhaps that's exactly the point. We spend too much time being royal and too little on being a family,” Julian replied, getting up off the desk and making his way over to one of the many bookcases that stood in the small room. “Perhaps we could try to-”
“Your Majesties!” The door to the room burst open with bang and in ran one of the eleven Masters Gida and Julian had brought with them on their journey. His name was Lord Aaric, one of the older Masters in their retinue, having just celebrated his fiftieth year before they left for Dunwellen. His eyes were wide and looking slightly manic, his hands shaking my his sides. He was clearly still Bonded with his Smith, Lady Cadby. Gida could feel her presence within his soul.
“What is the meaning of this, Aaric?” snapped Julian, rounding on the man, “You don't just barge in on the-”
“Fire, your Majesty. Fires rising in the Dunholdian camp. We believe they are under attack!”
Gida frowned in thought, “Or it could be a trap to make us open the gates. I don't see why-”
“It's the Princess, your Majesty,” Aaric interrupted quickly, taking the knee at once. “She is here, beyond the wall. She is fighting!”
That was all the King and Queen needed. Even before Aaric had finished his sentence Julian was sprinting towards Gida. He dove towards her across the desk, Etherin drenching his body and allowing him to sink into her chest even as Gida rose from his seat and disappeared. The Queen of Venos tore the desk in two during her flight, her husband's Gifts of Speed and Strength more than enough to deal with the obstacle.
Gida wove her way around Aaric, who looked frozen from his place on the floor. Julian employed their Gift of Thought even as he called to Gida's Armour and oversaw it's construction around her body, an incredible feat that required the greatest amount of skill considering just how fast the Queen was moving. One false move could cripple her, but Gida had the utmost faith in her husband's abilities and called upon more speed which Julian happily gave her. Gida threw out her spiritual sense to try and locate her daughter.
“What the hell is she doing?!” Julian roared at his wife from within her inner soul even as he worked.
Gida didn't answer but clenched her jaw and continued to run. That girl. That foolish, stupid girl! Was she trying to get herself killed? What did she hope to achieve with-
Gida came to a dead stop. Her spiritual sense had revealed something and it had disturbed her so much that she almost smashed straight into one of the rough stone walls of the Dunwellen keep.
“That isn't... that's not possible.” Julian sounded shocked. More than that he sounded afraid.
Gida could sense Elora's soul, could see it as clear as day. She had known the touch of her daughter's soul since the day of her birth. She had memorised that signature like no other before it or since. She knew it was Elora outside the walls. That wasn't the issue.
The issue was what she was Bonded with.
“That Element. It's not Cellus... It can't be-”
“It's not,” Gida snarled, her hand wrapping into a fist which she slammed into the wall with all her considerable strength, causing cracks and fissures to form across it's already uneven surface. “It's something worse. Something far worse.”
Rage. All consuming and all commanding it flooded the body of the Queen, matched by the King who roared within his place in her soul. They took off once again and made for the walls, their speed would allow them to reach Elora in a minute, perhaps less. But going alone would be suicide, even for her. She was furious, but far from stupid. Gida could hold off until her Knights were in position. She looked towards Elora once again and saw she was surrounded by other soul signatures, Knights who no doubt served Dunhold. This was it. She would save her daughter from Dunhold and end the abomination she was Bound to. Questions of how this happened could be asked later.
“PREPARE FOR BATTLE!” The Queen screamed as she emerged into the courtyard outside the Dunwellen keep. “ALL FORCES TO THE GATES! FOR VENOS!”
* * *
I heard the sounds of fighting behind me and knew that Dumas and Padma had engaged, but I wasn't worried. They were strong, stronger than I often gave them credit for and I knew they would be able to stop the soldiers from reaching me. I could just barely see Boldrin to my right, roaring a challenge to a unit of soldiers who had just arrived. They looked to be quaking in their boots at the thought of being the first to engage the giant in combat, hesitation and fear written all over their faces. Easy to spot with my Bonded powers. They would be an easy target for Boldrin.
I couldn't tell where Tessa was but I wasn't worried. The sharp-eyed mercenary would strike from unseen vantage points and slay our enemies before they even knew she was there. I had my own shit to deal with right now.
“One approaches, Orin, on the left!” Elora shouted in my head and I whipped my head around in time to dodge a glowing red and orange sword that had every intention of taking my head off. I lashed out with my blade and hit something that sounded like armour, or Armour, but my sword was repelled.
A form appeared in front of me. A man to my eyes, dressed from head to toe in an ethereal set of Armour that glowed with heat. So a Fire Element then. Hadn't I already dealt with one of those?
Unlike Craven, this Knight appeared to actually be in control of his mental faculties and stared at me through the thin slit of his visor with eyes filled with mirth and derision. The Weapon in his hand was a shining sword of flame, great tongues of fire licking it's length. Even from here I could feel the heat and power cascading off the man in waves.
“Look what we have here, a newly Bonded with-”
I blurred and brought my sword down upon the man's neck, using my Gift of Strength in place of Speed. So powerful was the blow that it brought the Knight to his knees and I heard a shout of surprise as he struggled to rise under the weight of my blade, already glowing red with being so close to his Armour.
“Aim for the weak spots. His visor, under the arms, the back of the knees. A Smith is limited in where they can cause Armour to form because they can't restrict movement. His Gift of Strength is weaker than ours. Kill the Knight and the Smith is useless, stab him in the head! We can win this fight!” Elora shouted inside my head and poured the Gift of Thought and Healing into my body. Thought to make sure I could keep up with the Knight's superior speed and Healing to ensure the burning waves of heat didn't keep me down for long.
“Who the fuck are you?” The Knight snarled before shooting backwards, a wave of fire emerging from his hand as he sought to cover his retreat.
I gritted my teeth and shot straight through the wall of flame. Pain ran through my body but it was nothing compared to Craven's corrupted variant and with our newly improved Gift of Healing, Elora could could mend me without draining us too quickly.
I approached the Knight at speed, lashing out with my sword and aiming for his eyes but he quickly blocked with his Weapon. He attacked again and I knocked his sword aside with ease. Elora was right. He might be faster and have his Element, but our Gift of Strength was Resonant and had improved as we had trained together. It wasn't a lot stronger than when we had first Bonded, but it was enough to give us an advantage now.
I danced forwards and struck once more, keeping the Knight on the back foot. He was well-trained, obviously a graduate of the Hall of Tyra, but he had underestimated me and I had hurt him. Now he was cautious.
Or so I thought. I lunged at his visor once more, jabbing towards his eyes and hoping to end this battle before it could even begin but he was one step ahead. Using his Gift of Speed to outmanoeuvre me, he stabbed me in the side, the sword easily cutting through my chain mail hauberk and causing pain to erupt across my body.
“Fool, you don't even have-” I interrupted him when I smashed my fist into the side of his helmet, Elora pouring on the strength, a roar matching my own emerging from her lips as we sent the Knight into the ground beneath us. The soft earth erupted as we cratered the flaming asshole, the flesh of my knuckles nearly burned down to the bone. I raised my sword and pounced, ignoring the agony of my wounds, which Elora was healing, and aimed my sword for the slit in his visor.
I almost made it, but not before a pillar of water smashed into my side and sent me flying into one of the crimson tents. I felt my ribs break and then heal again, felt my brain rattle and skull fracture before Elora took care of the damage. I hit the ground hard but I was up almost instantly and leaping forward. I couldn't hesitate, couldn't slow down for even a second. If I did then we would all die.
The Knight who had joined me and the fiery jackass was a woman, one who was covered in a form fitting suit of sapphire mail, the links of which were all shaped like fish scales. In her left hand was what appeared to be some kind of harpoon with a blade of water replacing the steel. Her armour had an obvious weakness that I could see. Her deep black hair flowed out of the back of her faceless mask, meaning that she must have some kind of opening back there. Strange thing to do but fuck it, I'd take anything I could get right now.
The Knight raised another hand and I watched with an open jaw as she created spears of spinning water all around her before throwing open her fist and sending them soaring towards me at speed.
Time slowed down slightly as Elora instinctively gave me access to Thought and I moved, using Strength to push myself into the air and avoid the first of the spears. I did not expect them to change direction on me though, which was something I should have expected in hindsight.
The spears turned and immediately chased me, flying into the air under the command of the Knight who created them. I spun, kicking out with force to change my body's position and lashed out of with my sword against the first of the watery spears that reached me.
I cut the first at the tip and it fell apart instantly. It seemed that the Knight wasn't able to hold their form together if it was disrupted. That information didn't help me much considering how many there were.
As I fell, I glanced down and saw that the Fire Knight was beginning to push himself to his feet. He must have had a really shitty Gift of Healing if it was taking him so long to recover from just one punch. But his weakness did give me an idea.
I rolled as soon as I hit the ground and felt a splash of water hit my back, avoiding one of her spears by mere inches. I sprinted towards the downed Knight, each impact of my feet causing great plumes of dust to rise into the air as I pushed forward with our Resonant Gift. I reached the man and grabbed him, screaming as his flaming armour caused my vision to shake and hold to weaken almost immediately. But I held on. I spun him in place and held him up as a shield, the spears not slowing down for a second, the Water Knight's vision disrupted by the cover I had blown up during my short run.
“No!” The Knight screamed but she was too late to stop it.
As I had suspected, it appeared that Armour was weak to Elemental attacks of the opposite type. The spears of water collided with the man, causing him to scream in pain as his body was ripped apart by a barrage of attacks.
“End him now, Orin! Elora shouted in my head and I grinned at my blood thirsty Princess, slamming the Knight into the ground and gabbing my discarded sword in one movement with burnt and blackened hands. I shoved the blade between his visor and into his eye, killing him instantly as I twisted the blade.
The Water Knight screamed again as the Smith of the now dead Knight appeared out of the air, light coalescing and forming into a young man in his mid-twenties. He looked to be shocked, his eyes streaming tears as he reached out to touch the body of his Knight, who was now without Armour or Weapon. The Knight appeared to share some facial similarities with his Smith.
I cut off the head of the Smith before he could recover from the shock of losing his Knight and immediately ran towards his watery counterpart. This was war and I sure as shit wasn't going to leave an enemy behind because he appeared to be helpless. No one was helpless, everyone could be a threat. That was as true for a commoner as it was for a King.
I felt Elora's dismay at me killing the Smith but I knew she would forgive me. He was just as much a part of that fight as his brother was, as much as Elora was. In the end, the Knight was too weak to protect his Smith. I wouldn't let things end the same way.
“You bastard!” The female Knight screamed and an explosion of water radiated out of her body. So powerful was it that all I could do was cover my face before I was thrown backwards, sent skidding along the ground as I reached out with my free hand to get some purchase, the torrent slamming into my body like it was solid rather than liquid.
“You killed him... You killed him... He was my everything! They were our everything!” I couldn't see the Knight's eyes behind her faceless mask but the tone of her voice told me everything I needed to know. She had lost her fucking mind.
I clenched my jaw and struggled, pushing back against the constant pulses of water that burst from the Knight in waves.
“Orin, the Smith is giving her too much. Just like Craven, they're going to kill themselves at this rate!”
“Not before they kill us!” I shouted, trying to use my Strength to push myself forwards but it was useless. The power of her Element was awe-inspiring and terrifying, even more so than Craven. I had managed to kill the Fire Knight using luck more than anything else. In a straight fight with this warrior, I would lose, I knew it as well as Elora. Not only that but I could feel the souls of other Knights closing in. These two were just the vanguard of a much larger force. I counted six... eight... ten enemies closing in on us. Too many for me to fight on my own. I couldn't rely on the others for help, they simply weren't strong enough. I needed to get up and move. I couldn't beat them, but I didn't need to, I just had to keep them busy until the Queen arrived.
I needed more power. I needed my Element, but how? I didn't know the first thing about channelling it but desperation was pushing me to try something rash.
I dove into myself, down and deep into the home of my obsidian flames. They slithered about excitedly, waving at me merrily as they danced through the endless black of my soul space. I reached out with everything I had, called upon the Dark that I knew was hiding somewhere out there, beyond the very edges of my consciousness, in the place as old as the world and older still. I brought my will to bear, to force it to comply, to force it help me win this fight.
After what felt like hours of searching, I felt something. It wasn't the Dark but something deeper. Something stronger.
A silver eye, great and terrible and filled with the endlessness of all things turned it's gaze upon me. I had never felt so small, so insignificant, so fragile as my mind touched the very edges of a consciousness that could snuff out everything I was and ever could be. I nearly lost myself. Eternity became nothing, Space ruled everything here. I was so close as to touch it, but so far as to never even know it existed. It didn't want me, it didn't accept me like the Dark had. Whatever this presence was, it hated the fact that I would even think about touching it. The Dark and this new presence were comparable in strength, but that was all. This presence was more vast than the Dark could ever hope to be, because this thing did not just touch the Dark, but the Light as well and everything in between.
But I couldn't fail. I couldn't let Elora down. I couldn't let down the Sister, or the kids, or Boldrin, or Tessa. I refused to let this thing reject me.
So I took it's power.
It screamed and raged and smashed against barriers both near and far but my will was strong and, while it fractured, it did not break. It's power was mine by right and I would take it for my own.
I opened my eyes, the water still raging around me as I raised my sword into the air, my gaze finding the Water Knight as Elora screamed at me. Silver light passed down my arm and into my sword, causing it to ignite like a small sun as I got to my feet, each step more painful than the last. The water cut into my flesh like razors but pain was the last thing on my mind right now. It was taking everything in me to keep the strength of my Element contained.
I swung my sword and the silver light exploded outwards.
The water stopped. Everything stopped and I watched as the sword Boldrin had given me crumbled into dust before my eyes. It seemed like containing such power wasn't possible for a weapon as simple as that one.
I looked up at the Water Knight. She stood completely still, her arms still pointing outwards but she did not move a single inch. Her Armour faded away, slowly but surely, revealing pinned eyes and a horrified expression on her face.
“W-what are you...” Those were the last words she would ever speak. Her torso split in half, severed cleanly from shoulder to hip, her mouth opening and closing like a fish as the light dimmed from her eyes.
Her Smith appeared next to her, light forming into the body of a young woman. She wasn't breathing. The same wound that had killed her Knight had ended her life as well. She reformed into two split pieces, the horror on her face a mirror of was felt by her Bonded at the point of her death.
“Orin! Are you alright? Answer me!” Elora's voice finally reached me and I fell to my knees, taking in deep breaths as my whole body trembled under the weight of the power I had just summoned.
“I-I'm fine, Elora. Give me a minute,” I looked around to find everyone staring at me. Boldrin, Dumas and Padma looked at me with open mouths. They were surrounded by dead bodies. It seems those still living were just as stunned as my friends after my little show with my silver Element. Whatever the fuck that was.
“I couldn't reach you,” Elora sobbed, “I thought you were dead. Your consciousness was gone from your body. I thought I'd lost you.”
“I'm fine,” I smiled gently, reaching a hand up and placing it over my heart to comfort her. “That was something else, Elora. Was that my primary Element?”
“It was” Elora laughed between her tears, “I don't know what it did, but you won, Orin!”
“We won, Princess.” I replied a smile, getting to my feet “Without you I'd be a hunk of meat on the floor right now.”
I turned around and smiled at my comrades, “Fuck, that was something else right?”
“Orin, that was awesome!” Dumas said, his shock having passed and his excitement grown, “How did you do that?!”
“Don't ask me,” I muttered under my breath and turned to find Tessa looking straight at me, her eyes meeting mine with an emotion I had never seen there before. She looked sad. Such sadness hid behind her tear-filled eyes that I thought it would break my heart. But there was something else there too, something that disturbed me far more than her melancholy: It was a fervant need.
“Tess, what are you-”
“Orin, look out!” Elora's voice erupted inside my head.
I reacted immediately to the words of my Smith and threw myself to the side, just managing to avoid a large rock as it slammed into the place I had stood in a moment before.
“Never seen anything like that before,” The mocking voice belonged to yet another Knight, this one dressed in Armour that appeared to have been hewn from great slabs of stone, clasping a huge maul in one of his hands that seemed to he made of roughly cut emerald. “Isn't that something? You're still just a pup, though. I doubt you'll be able to do that again.”
“Padma!” I snarled and held out a hand to my friend.
Padma nodded and grabbed a sword from one of the bodies of the fallen on the ground and threw it towards me. I caught it with ease and spun around just in time to duck as that gigantic hammer narrowly missed my head.
“We have more incoming!” Boldrin shouted, his words thundering across the entire encampment, the soldiers who had been momentarily distracted by my performance remembering their purpose. “Tessa look sharp. Padma, Dumas, work together and keep the fuckers from getting close to Orin. One more push!”
Red soldiers began to pour into the clearing we found ourselves trapped in. Tessa hopped over to Boldrin, slipping her daggers back into her sheaths and grabbing a discarded spear, immediately stabbing one of the soldiers through the skull who was about to strike her leader in the back.
I wasn't doing much better. This Knight had no obvious weaknesses. I was faster but he was far stronger and each impact of his blows, even if they missed, caused the air to shiver and my body to shake in trepidation. The Element I had summoned had weakened me, had weakened Elora, but we still had some fight left in us yet.
Then another Knight stepped out from within the sea of tents, firing a blast of fire from her hands that I couldn't dodge fully. She caught my left arm and it burned with seething agony. She wasn't the only one. Even with Thought I couldn't quite process all the attacks that suddenly came flying at me. A long icicle impaled itself in my thigh and when I went to remove it, long green vines covered in thorns rose from the ground and wrapped themselves around my legs. A cutting wind slashed open my face, the blood falling in my eyes even as the rock covered Knight sent a thin spear of stone that impaled itself on the same side I had just been wounded by the Fire Knight moments before.
It was too much. I couldn't keep up at this rate. Elora was busy trying to put out fires, her Gift of Healing working overtime but I could feel that it wasn't as fast as before. The Princess was doing the same thing that she had done at the wedding, mending what she could but only to the point where it wouldn't kill me. That could only mean one thing: Our supplies of Aurum were getting low.
That was when I heard a scream behind me and whirled around, the vines tearing into my soft flesh but I ignored the pain as I ripped free. Padma had been stabbed. One of the soldiers had caught her in the abdomen and she killed him even as she fell, stabbing her sword into his neck, her weak grip on the weapon causing her to let go.
I saw Dumas become the incarnation of rage, his huge sword spinning around him as he used it's momentum and his own strength to smash the enemies between him and his sister. Wounds opening on his body as he abandoned defence entirely. The trickle of Dunhold had become a flood and even Boldrin and Tessa were struggling, being pushed back as two dozen soldiers tried to overcome them, the wounds on their bodies building up as they moved closer and closer to me. Their only advantage was that the soldiers were getting in their own way and stopping each other from getting close enough to end the lives of my friends.
I gritted my teeth and reached down to grab a hold of my mysterious Element once again, only for a sharp pain to erupt behind my eyes, causing me to stagger. I dodged to the side and ripped the icicle out of my leg as I went, nearly falling to one knee but Elora managed to heal the damage quickly enough for me to cut another icicle out of the air before it could reach me.
I couldn't win this. The Fire Knight had a terrible Healing Gift. Presumably it was even worse than what Elora called our below average one, but could the same be said for the Knights in front of me? Each of them was fresh and ready for combat. They would be able to take huge amounts of damage before I could take them down and I couldn't rely on my silver Element to help. It had killed the Water Knight and her Smith before she could mend herself but I couldn't summon it on command yet. Our Aurum was so close to running out. I could feel Elora's struggles inside of me as she tried to keep me alive, utilizing the dregs of our power.
Was this it? Had we failed?
“The gates! The gates are opening!”
The Knights suddenly stopped attacking me. I was thankful because it allowed me to fall to my knees again, exhausted after the brief burst of vicious attacks. I heaved onto the ground, what little food I had before battle coming back up.
“Orin... what's going on?” Elora sounded just as tired as I felt. I could feel her confusion over the Bond so I looked up to see what the other Knights had been distracted by.
The gates of the city had swung open with a mighty boom and out had stormed an army. Each of them wore the livery of Venos as they ran, charging towards our position. The sound of their boots on the earth caused the earth to shake. Most of the peasants that stood in their way were trampled or cut down under that terrific charge, but many of the common folk simply ran. It seemed that Alec was right, the fires rising near them and the panic that gripped their hearts was too much for them to take.
We had done it!
But the Knights were not looking at the army charging towards them. They looked upwards and into the starry night sky where a figure lingered, one that I could only describe as the personification of death.
It was a woman, that much I knew from the shape of her form-fitting armour, but nothing else could be discerned from her body. Every inch of it was covered with black and purple plate, the suit seeming to glimmer in the soft glow of the fires that rose within camp and the light of the moon itself. Violet eyes, shining brightly in a faceless helmet, stared down at the assembled Knights with derision and dismissal. Great wings, black as the sky they lay against, moved slowly through the air, keeping the woman aloft.
This was a Knight. A true Knight. Terrifying and all-powerful.
“It's my mother! Orin, it's her!” Elora shouted in triumph. I could hear the smile, the relief, in her voice as she realised that we were saved, that we had done what they had set out to do. We had given the Queen the distraction she needed to escape.
Then she looked at me. I felt her hatred press down against my physical body, my soul of black flames quivering under the intensity of that stare.
The Knights tried to run. They knew they were no match for the Master that floated before them. The red soldiers attempted to run as well, their terror clear as they abandoned their fights against my friends and tried to retreat further into the camp.
They tried to run. They needn't have bothered. They died before they made it ten steps.