The Four Kingdoms

Part Three




Eight: To Tallus

Nine: Tallus

Ten : The Red Castle

Eleven: DeathWatch



Chapter Eight : To Tallus


A few miles out of town, Ezra stripped off the heavy black mask covering the lower half of his face and offered the others a quick grin.  The moonlight glinted off his healthy teeth, so that they almost glowed.


“Well that was fun,” he said lightly to no one in particular.  It earned him several dark looks, including an increasingly haunted looking one from Vin.  The archer’s shoulders seemed to slump more and more the further they got from his former home town, the large crossbow he usually wore across his back while riding loose across his legs.


“If by fun, you mean that I should laugh about the fact that the people who I grew up with, the people who took care of me after my momma died, the people I considered family, would turn me in for money, well then, ha ha ha,” Vin replied tightly.


“Well, at least it was a good reason,” Ezra argued, still smiling.


Vin frowned, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Good reason? 500 Crowns?”


“Certainly.  Survival.  They were only doing what they had to, to survive.”  The thief shrugged.


“Ezra,” Chris warned angrily.  The thief looked across at him, then nodded.  Pulling back slightly on the reins, he fell back into the group to ride in back with Josiah and Nathan, who, once more, had chosen to take up the rear.  Josiah was using some of his remaining strength to wipe evidence of their passage, and Nathan was shoring him up with some of his healing power.


Vin turned to watch Ezra leave, his gaze hard.  Then he turned around and stared forward at the dark landscape.


“Ezra…” Chris said, also watching the ground before them, “does not have the most principled of perspectives.”


Vin sighed, not answering for a moment, then he offered a short laugh.  He straightened his shoulders and inhaled deeply.  “Actually, I think he may have the most practical outlook of all of us.”




“He was right, Chris.  As much as I dislike admitting it, those people, my people, did not act because they wanted to.  They believed they had to.  Tascosa…is just a shell now, Chris.  That kind of money could mean the difference between life and death to some of them.  Stuart James…I saw his face.  As much as I want to hate him, I can’t deny that he was only trying to help his people.”


Chris snorted, clearly not agreeing.  “What about Lucas.”


“Oh him?”  Vin’s face dropped into a sneer, “He’s just an ass.”


The paladin laughed, and Vin was able to straighten his shoulders a bit more.  Casually, he lifted the crossbow and swung it round his shoulders.


Buck rode forward then, pulling up so that he was next to Chris.  JD leaned forward on his pommel, but did not also move forward to join them.  Ezra pulled up alongside the lad and patted him on the back.  JD nodded at him.


“So,” Buck said slowly, as if tasting each word as it came out of his mouth, “I take it this means we will not be visiting anymore towns?”


“No.  With the bounty on Vin’s head, and the one that will likely be placed on the rest of us before long, I think it safer to stay to the woods.  We’ll have to survive on what we have in our bags.”


Ain’t much,” Buck grimaced. “Enough for a week, maybe.” Behind him, Ezra cleared his throat.


“I was wearing a mask, don’t forget, Sir Larabee.  I can still stop in any villages we pass…for supplies and information,” the thief suggested.  Chris pursed his lips, but did not deny the man.


“I don’t like the idea of you going into places alone,” the paladin said.


Ezra’s brow knitted, instantly taking this the wrong way.  “I will not run out again, Adenn’s Champion.  I gave you my word back there in the village.”


Chris’s jaw tensed at the formal title, his eyes hard as flint.  “I meant, Lord Standish, that I was worried about your safety.  Strangers will all be viewed with suspicion right now.”


Ezra blushed slightly at being corrected, “Ah.  Well, then, perhaps one of you may accompany me…”


“How?” JD piped up.  “They all know what we look like now.”


“There is such a thing as a disguise, Master Dunne.  In fact, considering the length of Master Tanner’s hair, I may know of a particularly effective one….so long as he doesn’t mind shaving that stubble on his chin.”  Ezra grinned brightly at the scout, who looked confused for a moment before his eyes widened in understanding.


“What? No, no, no way!”


“Master Tanner, as much as you may deny it, you are the best suited, other than Master Dunne.  Your youth, being, perhaps only a year or two younger than me, and your features….”


“No, No! Absolutely not.”


Buck started to snicker at Vin’s indignation, and even Chris started to smile.  JD merely looked bewildered.


“What are you talking about?” the stableboy wanted to know.  Vin glanced at him angrily, then turned to face forward.  This made Buck laugh harder.


“I’m suggesting…Master Dunne…that Master Tanner pretend to be my wife.”  Ezra smiled up at Vin, while JD’s hand instantly went to his mouth to hide his surprise.


“Ezra, I am going to KILL you,” Vin flashed.


“I believe that that is not an uncommon feeling to have for one’s husband, my dear.”


“Dead, he will be dead. There is no way in hell you will ever get me into a dress.”


“Actually, Vin, I think that Ezra’s idea has some merit,” Chris smiled across at the tracker.


“Then you do it!”


“Too old,” Ezra deadpanned, earning a briefly hurt expression from Chris.  The paladin quickly recovered however, and nodded.


“He’s right,” Chris said.


“Then let JD do it.”


“Hey!” the kid yelled indignantly.


“I’d rather it were you, Vin.  You’re more experienced,” Chris answered, ignoring JD.


“Hey again!” JD said again, annoyed at being considered inexperienced.  He thought he had done a damned good job back at the tavern.  Then he remembered what he was objecting to, and quickly shut up.


“I have one blue dress,” Ezra mused, tapping his finger against his chin and looking up.  “It will match his eyes, and light enough to draw attention from any shadow on his chin.  And I have some face powder and lip coloring in my bags.”


“No! No…a dress is bad enough, but you ain’t painting my face!”  Vin’s color was up so high on his face, it was a wonder he didn’t burst.


“Why have you got women’s clothes and face paint in your bag, Ezra?” Buck asked suddenly, arching an eyebrow.  Ezra snorted at the question.


“I too have had to don the occasional disguise on occasion, Captain,” Ezra replied easily. “I carry two dresses – one blue, one purple – just in case.”


“Well then, you be the wife,” Vin rebounded. “I’ll be the husband.”


“May I remind you, Master Tanner, that it is not my face sitting on a wanted bill in every town square between here and Tallus?”


“You are a dead man, Ezra Standish.”


“I believe you said that already,” Ezra smiled and leaned back in the saddle. 



The plan worked well, with Ezra and a disgusted (but well disguised) Vin stopping in three towns on the journey down to Tallus.  They pretended to be refugees – something commonly seen in the war ravaged towns – and easily got supplies.


However, keeping to the woods was not much safer than avoiding the roads.  As Josiah had predicted, the blood magic of the fay had grown stronger, and the creatures who lived off of it had returned to haunt the old places.  Even with Josiah’s wards and being on alert, they had several other near misses, one of which cost them almost a week of time. 


That’s when they lost Buck.


One evening, while making camp, the Captain had wandered off to answer a call of nature, and never returned.  They found him five days later about ten miles up inside the Southern reaches, sitting up inside a circle of mushrooms, covered in ashes.  He was dazed, but otherwise all right.  When he tried to explain what had happened, it came out in a somewhat disjointed fashion.


“I’m not so sure,” he had said, staring up at Josiah as if for answers.  “I remember being just outside camp, about to return, when I caught sight of what I thought was a firefly.  It was so beautiful – like a tiny glowing sun, and it flew around my head a few times.  When it didn’t blink, I knew it wasn’t natural, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.  When it started to drift away…I followed.”


“A Will-o-the-Wisp,” Josiah supplied quietly. “They’re like sirens – they work for the fairies by enticing solitary travelers to follow them into the Fairy world.”


Buck nodded, blinking at the information.  “Whatever it was…I don’t really recall much of what happened after that.  I have vague memories of suddenly be surrounded by light, color and music, as if it were day, and laughter…like the chimes of a pocket-watch.  At some point,” he narrowed his eyes, as if trying to see more clearly, “at some point I found myself here.”  He looked around at the long oval circle of mushrooms.


“A fairy circle,” Josiah explained again.  “They drain your energy and leave you to die inside the circle.  The mushrooms grow to feed off of your body once the fairies have finished stealing your life.”


“Yeah… that makes sense.  When I awoke, I was lying here, tied down by these golden threads.” He looked down at his body, and noticed bits of gold flecks mixed amongst the ashes.  “They were so strong, I couldn’t move.  And all around me where these tiny…” he smiled crookedly, “tiny women.  With wings.  Really pretty women.  But…small. Really small. Oh, but they were nice to look at.”  The smile grew more lascivious.


JD’s eyebrows arched at the description, and he shared a look with Ezra and Vin.


“Fairies,” Josiah agreed.  “But, you were tied down by Fairy thread? I have always been told it is unbreakable without magic. You were already released when we got here, how did you…?”  He trailed off, his eyes looking more closely at the ashes.  Buck grunted and stood, staggering a little until Chris caught his arm.


“I’m not sure, mage.  I was just so angry at being tied down, so furious.  I knew I was dying, I could feel it, but I couldn’t do anything.  I screamed, I remember that, and fought to pull free, and they just laughed at me.  They flew closer and I started to feel dizzy, and I could smell the mushrooms growing – the smell of death.  Then, from somewhere deep inside of me, I felt power.  Just briefly, like a bolt of lightening, and I grabbed it, shoved out with it.  Abruptly everything went red, then black.  When I woke again, I was alone…and as you see me.  How did you find me?”


“Turns out Vin’s a pretty darn good scout,” Chris said quietly.  “We tracked you.  Your trail went all over the place, but eventually it led us here.”


“You burned the ropes,” Josiah whispered, his voice reverent. Buck looked at him.


“I what?” He shook his head. “No, Josiah.  I had no means to make fire.  I didn’t burn them.”


“You did.  It’s the only explanation.  This is incredible.  I have to think on this.”  He watched Buck a moment longer, then wandered off to find his horse.  Buck watched him go with a bemused expression.


“He’s a strange bird, isn’t he,” the Captain said curiously.


“There is nothing normal about any of this, Buck.  Fairies?  Good lord – talk about a ridiculous myth brought to life.”  Chris shook his head, and noticed that Buck had a bruise on the side of his head.  “Best get Nathan to check you over before we head out. How do you feel?”


“Weird.  But, not hurt.”


Chris nodded.  “Good, because we’ve lost a week of time.”


Buck’s eyes looked startled, “a week?  But I don’t….”  He shook his head, swallowing hard.


Chris only nodded, before turning to go follow Josiah.  Nathan took over, checking the Captain over.


“What do you mean he burned them?” Chris demanded, coming up on the mage.  Josiah turned around, his eyes bright.


“I’m not sure,” he replied.  “But I think that, perhaps, we may be able to do more with these auras of ours. I really have never heard of anything like this before, so I can’t tell you.  But you recall what I said about us each representing an element?”


“Except Ezra.”


“Right, except Ezra.  Well, it may be possible that these elements are also protecting us, to some degree.  Buck…I think he used his, fire, to free himself.  He had to have been pretty desperate at that point, and it might have taken over to free him, to give him the strength to break free.  If true…that may bring us an edge.”  Josiah grinned, rubbing at the back of his neck.


Chris sighed, not sure he liked this.  “Well, is there anything we can do to better control these supposed powers?”


Josiah’s face pinched for a minute in thought, then he shook his head.  “I don’t think so.  I doubt I can teach you to call on them. None of you have the aptitude for magic.  Hell, for Buck, the power may never return.  For now, all I can say is, it certainly makes for some interesting possibilities.”


Chris grimaced at this rather useless statement.  “Well, think on it mage.  Anything that can help would be useful.”  Josiah frowned at the irritation he heard in Chris’s voice.  The paladin was disappointed in him. 


“Chris,” he said gruffly, “I am as new to this as you are.” 


The paladin looked away, back at Buck.  “I know that, mage.  But at the moment, you are the only one who has the knowledge to make sense of it.”



Chapter Nine: Tallus


“Damn,” Chris stated sourly, his eyes scanning the hillside before him, “how the hell did Farron get here so fast?”  None of the others responded, but a deep sense of gloom had enveloped them all…all except JD.


The kid’s eyes were as big as saucers as he stared down at the scene before him.  Never having left the Pass before, he’d been somewhat disappointed by the lowlands, not seeing too much difference except in the types of trees he saw.  But as he looked over the city and castle a league away from their hidden position, he found himself rendered almost speechless.


“Wow,” he breathed, earning him a sidelong glance from Buck, “is that Tallus?”


“Sure is kid.  She’s usually a bit happier looking, but that’s her.”


Before them stretched the valley of the Clythe River, a wide and deep waterway that supported this entire region.  Large ships could sail up and down it with ease and without worry of weather, allowing for the growth of a centrally located capital where wealth circulated in great quantities.  Far more accessible than either of the other three capitals – Rhea being landlocked and Adenn and Leda being on somewhat unforgiving coasts – it tended to put the others to shame in terms of its progress and modernity.  Without question, it was the richest city in the Four Kingdoms, and, consequently, required one of the largest, most heavily protected fortifications to provide order.  Only the castle in Rhea could boast a more impressive structure than Queen Selene’s castle. 


This was indeed Tallus.


And it was under siege.


Castle Tallus rose up on a hillock just north of the main city, built high on a motte with one side a limestone cliff running steeply down into the river below.  Ivy, small bushes and wildflowers covered the limestone wall reaching up to the castle.  The other three sides were landscaped lawn rolling down to the city below.


Straddling both sides of the Clythe, the city of Tallus bathed in the royal castle’s glow.  Dreaming gray rock spires and red brick cathedral domes were sprinkled around the sprawling city, full of promise.  Normally, the city was full of life, with people streaming in and out of the city’s gates at all hours, and lights burning on through the night.  But now it sat quietly, the gates shut.


“How many people live there?” JD asked, trying to count all the roofs and chimneys.


“A lot,” Buck answered again. Vin smiled grimly.  He was Tillurian, but he himself had only been to the capital a few times.  He remembered having a similar reaction many years ago, when he’d first come to sign up for the army.


“What’s a lot?” JD persisted.  Buck shrugged and looked to Chris and Vin.


“Approximately fifty thousand souls, Master Dunne,” Ezra said, sidling up behind them from where he’d been taking care of the horses.  “It is the largest city in the Four Kingdoms.  Rhea is next with forty five thousand, but neither Adenn nor Leda have more than twenty five thousand souls in their walls.”


Fiftty thousand?” JD gasped.  “I’ve never…”


“I’m more interested in how many of Farron’s soldiers are on that hill,” Chris interrupted.  JD quickly quieted under the dark tone, turning to look in the direction of the castle.


Surrounding the city, covering the hills and reaching up the hillock to stand within a few hundred yards of the castle walls (just outside of longbow range), stretched a sea of tents and campfires.  Farron’s army.


“Based on the number of campfires multiplied by the number of men per campfire in your average battlifield situation,” Ezra said, “I’d warrant about seven thousand men, give or take a hundred.”


“Seven thousand?”  JD’s gasp was back.  “How are we going to defeat seven thousand?”


“One thousand each?” Vin deadpanned.  JD shot him a look.


“Are you sure about those numbers, Ezra?” Chris asked.  “That’s how many we figured on before we left last month.  If you still think that there are seven thousand on that field, then that we mean they made it all the way here without any losses.”


“Unless they have more fires in an attempt to inflate their numbers for psychological reasons, Sir Larabee, seven thousand is about right.”


Buck snorted, “you came up with that number awful quick, thief.”


Ezra bristled under the moniker, “I did not beat you repeatedly at poker because I have a gift for language, Captain.”


“I thought it was because you cheated,” Vin ribbed, smiling crookedly.


Ezra’s expression did not change, “there was no need, Master Tanner.”


“All right, all right, before we get off topic here, how do we get inside the castle without going through that mess?” Chris looked at Vin, who shrugged.


“Don’t look at me, Chris.  I’ve been inside there all of three times in my life.  While I could get you around the guardrooms and to the Great Hall, I have no idea how the rest of that place works.”


“Buck?” the paladin turned to his captain.


“I know some passages exist in the walls behind a few of the bedrooms and in the servant quarters, Chris, but not how to get to them from the outside.  Once in, I could get you to, say, the Princesses bedroom but….”  He trailed off, his voice trying to remain cool as the others all raised their eyebrows.  Josiah smiled into his hand, while Nathan tried not to express the disgust he felt.


Chris merely frowned, the only one already aware of Buck’s habits.  Instead, he looked to Ezra.  The thief grimaced.


“There is a secret passage at the base of the cliff leading up into the castle from the Clythe.  You have to climb a bit to reach it, but the ivy on the wall is pretty strong.  I believe it was originally designed as a waste chute from the dungeons, but it fell out of use.  Sometime before the enlightenment, when this castle was still a stronghold of the ancient emperor’s, they turned it into an escape route.  It leads to all of those passages Buck was talking about.”


No one spoke for a while, until Buck growled, “how do you know this?”


If you are asking whether I have ever stolen from the royal family, Captain, the answer is no.”


“That is not what I asked.”


“Yeah, Ezra, how do you know?” This was JD who asked, and his tone was thick with curiosity instead of censure.  Ezra glanced at the boy, and couldn’t resist a smile.


“I have had excuse to visit and learn of all four capital’s fortifications, Master Dunne, as part of my, ahem, former profession.  However, I have never used that knowledge to harm the royals in any way.  I needed information for my Prince, though I admit…I may have occasionally borrowed from some of the royal’s wealthier guests while doing so.”


“Wow,” JD said again, looking at Ezra.  For some reason, this “honest” response cause Vin to snicker and Josiah to smile.  Even Buck’s expression softened.  Only Nathan still seemed upset, probably because he had once been one of the “wealthier guests” that Ezra had once lifted from.


Chris was nodding, his eyes still on the campfires, and in particular on the large centrally located white tent in the middle of them all.  “Well, I guess that is our way in,” he said.  “I take it that, once inside, you can find your way around?”


“Yes, and I would guess that you, the scout and the Captain will quickly figure out the general scheme of the tunnels, should you decide that we split up.”


Chris nodded again, his mind already several skips ahead.  Peering once more out at the field and the purpling sky beyond, he calculated the amount of time left before dusk.


“All right Ezra,” the paladin said, “tonight we’ll get ourselves into the castle. We’ll find Eloise first, try to convince her to help, then go get the queen.”


“Fine.  Then, if you will excuse me, I need to procure us a boat,” Ezra smiled and stood, brushing off his outfit.  With a nod to the others, he finished, “Meet me at the Eagle Pub at midnight.  You know where that is, Master Tanner?”


Vin nodded, as did Buck and Chris. It was a favorite spot for soldiers. In fact, it was a tradition for new recruits to burn their initials into the ceiling and walls of the back room with a candle. With a grin, Ezra slipped away.


“I’m glad you trust him, Chris,” Buck said weakly.  The paladin sighed.


“We’ll go into the city in pairs.  Meet at the Pub at midnight.”



Ravennie shivered in the cold spring air, disliking the dampness of this green land.  She’d hated it when she lived in this country as a child, and she still hated it now.  Danaeria was much different in landscape – warmer and more desert like.  Some might describe it as harsher, but she preferred the drier air. 


Another shiver hit her, which was odd since the wind hadn’t blown. Frowning, she closed her eyes and looked around with her mind, seeking out the source of the disturbance.  Suddenly, the vision of her own death hit her and her pale blue eyes flew open in shock.


Ravennie?” Well’s voice slid across the wind, and the blond Oracle turned to meet her. Wells pushed aside the edge of Farron’s tent and joined her friend outside.  Her eyes were bright and a flush had lit upon her cheeks.


Ravnennie, can you feel them?” she whispered.


“Them?”  The older Oracle was still reeling from her own premonition.


“The seven,” Wells shut her eyes and took the other girl’s hand, “I can feel them.” 


Ravennie watched the brunette for a moment, brow knitted in worry.  Then, taking a deep breath, she too closed her eyes and once more allowed her mind to wander.  This time, she saw them.  As clear as day, the seven men blazed brightly among the thousands of people in the city, their energy brighter than ever before.  It almost took Ravennie’s breath away; their colors were much stronger than they had been when Farron had killed Hannah, more vibrant. 


“Isn’t he handsome?” Wells asked, her eyes still closed.  Ravennie frowned, her mind’s eye only capable of seeing the features of the Tillurian scout. 


“The green one?” she asked.  “Yes, I suppose…”


“No…the one of earth, the boy. With the dark brown hair…” the younger oracle smiled, watching shamelessly as JD moved across the landscape of her mind.  She could tell he was in the city somewhere, and that he found it amazing.  If she focused hard enough, she could almost see his face….


“I can’t see the brown one, only the green,” Ravennie stated coldly.  “Not that it matters.  We need to tell Farron they are here.”


Wells’ eyes opened slowly, clearly warring with herself.  “Do we have to?” she whispered.


“Wells, dear one, you know we do.  You know what he will do to us if he finds out we didn’t tell him.”


“Yes but,” Wells bit her lip, her eyes shifting, “but have you thought that…that maybe if we can get to them ourselves, if we sneak away…maybe we could escape?  The Seven would protect us, I know they would.  I know they will try to get into the castle tonight, we could meet them there.”  Brown eyes implored blue, but Ravennie could only shake her head.


“Have Farron’s demonstrations of power meant nothing to you, Wellssandra? He could crush us in moments without a second thought.  And he’d know…the instant we tried to leave, he’d know.  And he would find us and kills us.”


Ravennie, he is not all powerful yet.  He’s not omniscient either.  With the Seven’s help…”






“No. Wells, you may feel like risking your life, but I don’t.  I don’t want to die, and every time I sense those seven men, I see my death.  If telling Farron they are here stops that from happening….”


Ravennie, I love you.  I would never let anyone harm you, and I swear, I know none of those seven men would let you die.  Farron is evil, can’t you see that?  We need to get away from him, and with the seven men here, we might actually stand a chance.”


“I’m going to tell him,” the blond oracle turned to go inside the tent, but Wells caught her arm.


“Wait, please.”




Wells firmed her jaw, her breath quickening. “Wait until tonight.”


Ravennie frowned, hearing something in Wells’ tone she’d not heard since the young oracle had first arrived in Farron’s keep five years ago.  It was the voice of the willful girl she once had been.


“Why tonight?” Ravennie asked more quietly.


“Because…because I’m going to escape.  I saw them let in a young serving girl from the city up at the castle last night, and we didn’t try to stop her.  If I do this right, I might be able to get into the castle the same way.  And Ravennie…you could come with me.”


The older Oracle frowned, a tiny light of hope flaring in her heart for a moment before cold reason extinguished it.


“I’m sorry Wells.  I can’t.” She lowered her eyes to look at the muddy earth beneath her feet, her soiled shoes ruined.  Wells let go her arm and wrapped her arms around her own body as if to ward of chill. Ravennie stood watching the girl for a moment, wondering how Wells could still have any fight left in her. 


“But I will wait,” Ravennie whispered.  “I’ll give you until after midnight.  Then I’ll pretend to have just seen them arrive in a dream.  All right?”


Wells turned around, brown eyes filled with tears.  She nodded. “Thank you,” she said.


“Be careful,” Ravennie replied sincerely before disappearing back into the tent.


Inside, Farron looked up from where he was poring over a map of the inside of Castle Tallus with one of his lieutenants.  Beautiful sea-green eyes glanced lazily at Ravennie, who nodded quietly before moving into a back where she and Wells’ cots were set up.  The emperor grinned and rubbed at the scar on his cheek, his mind thinking about how pretty Ravennie’s cheeks looked flushed with the cold air.  After a moment, he stood up and moved to follow her, taking off his cloak as he went.


“Do not let anyone disturb us for an hour,” he ordered his lieutenant as he draped the cloak on a chair.  Eyes narrowed, he started unbuttoning his shirt as he glanced back at the young man now standing at attention by the desk, “Or I will have to kill you.”



Many hours later, when the moon had climbed high in the sky, a single small rowboat glided silently down the Clythe, working around the merchant ships slowly.  Only two people were visible sitting inside, a young man rowing the boat, and a young woman in a purple dress and shawl.  From the looks of it, they were sneaking out for a midnight rendevous.  None of the watchmen or soldiers paid them much mind.


Ezra shifted the purple shawl higher on his shoulders, peering lazily out from under his ladies hat.  Vin was grinning ear to ear as he rowed the boat, unable to believe that he had succeeded in convincing Ezra to play the woman in this little scenario.  Ezra caught the smile coolly, not pointing out that, by playing the woman, he did not have to row the boat.  JD shifted where he was lying on the floor of the little craft, hating the crampt space and the fact that he was getting damp.  Still at least he wasn’t with the others.


“Stop grinning,” Buck hissed at Vin from the water, his hand resting on part of the rowboat’s prow.  He, Chris, Josiah and Nathan were swimming alongside, all looking like drowned rats in the murky waters.  The Clythe might be a famous river, but that did not mean it was clean.


Vin arched his eyebrow, but didn’t do as he was told.  The grin merely got bigger.


“Over there,” Ezra said quietly, pointing to where a willow tree stuck out from the base of the limestone cliff.  Vin pulled hard on the left oar, and the boat glided gently to the right and under the tree.  Bowing down, the two men felt the long leaves brush their heads as the boat grounded itself against the rocks. 


“We can tie the boat to the tree base.  No one will see it under here.  Up there,” the thief pointed vaguely upwards through the tree branches, to where a faint trail was visible.  “We head up there.  The trail doesn’t go high enough, though.  It stops about ten feet below the entrance.  From there, we climb.”  Getting out of the boat, Ezra quickly stripped off the dress to reveal his black thieves outfit underneath.  He folded the dress and shawl neatly next to the tree.


“I don’t see an entrance,” Buck said, having pulled himself out of the water,  He was shaking water from his hair and clothes as he tried to discern shapes in the limestone face.  The light colored rock glowed in the moonlight, but the only dark shapes along it seemed to be ivy and bushes.


“It’s behind some ivy.  I’ll climb up first.”  Ezra shouldered the rope he had bought onto his shoulder, “then you can all climb up the rope.” 


“We’ll be sitting ducks should anyone see us,” Buck pointed out, becoming more and more unhappy with the plan.


“It’s the only way, Captain.”  Ezra threw him a steely gaze.  The thief sighed, muttering about amateurs under his breath, and slipped out from between the willow tree branches.  Vin leaned out to watch.


“Damn,” he hissed, “that’s amazing.”  The others peered out as well, and watched as Ezra climbed up the rockface easily and incredibly quickly.  He looked like a spider, his clothes dark against the white stone. He reached a large patch of ivy in moments, then…disappeared.


“Well, I’ll be,” Buck whispered back.  “Damn man’s half squirrel.”


“Here comes the rope,” Chris noted, as the rope curled down from above.  It landed almost at Vin’s feet.


“Here we go,” Vin grinned, excited despite himself.  Checking once to make sure no boats were passing on the water, he launched himself up the rope. 



Chapter Ten:  The Red Castle


Ezra had a small torch lit by the time they were all up inside the base of the chute, and he was wearing his heavy black mask again.  The entrance was about six feet in diameter, forcing the taller men to duck somewhat, and it was slick underfoot.  Buck was gagging.


“What the hell is that stench!” he demanded gruffly, holding his nose.  The others had all covered their faces, and Vin and JD were both looking a bit green.


Even with the mask, it was obvious to see that Ezra was smiling.  “What part of ‘this is the waste chute for the dungeons’ did you not understand, Captain?” he asked snidely.


“Oh hell, I think I’m going to be sick,” JD moaned, his eyes rolling a bit inside his head.


“Breathe through you mouth JD,” Chris suggested, peering upwards into the inky blackness of the chute.


“I’d rather not breathe at all,” the kid replied. “Ugh!”


“Gentlemen, please!” Ezra admonished.  “While it may seem that we are quite far down from the castle base, this tunnel does echo.  Please refrain from speaking above a whisper.”


“Who put him in charge?” Buck groused under his breath, and Chris actually smiled at that.


“So where does this lead, exactly?” the paladin asked.


“Up,” Ezra replied, then, when Chris shot him an annoyed look, “It leads straight to the sewage conduits under the dungeons, at which point there is a secret door that leads to the passages in the walls of the main castle.  The climb is steep, never gets any wider than this, and slippery,” he snorted slightly, “but it is really the only way.  Once up, I will take us straight to the bed chambers.”


“Well then,” Chris smiled thinly, “lead on, Sir thief.”


“Sir thief…,” Ezra shook his head, turning to head up into the blackness, “now that’s a new one.”



Gripping a small bag of things, Wells dashed from tent to tent as quickly as she could without being seen.  The damp grass underfoot squelched into her poor shoes, and it seemed to her that each footfall was louder than the last.


Nevertheless, through some kind of miracle, she made it to the edge of the camp and stared up at the red sandstone walls of the Castle.  Even in the moonlight, she could see its burnished color, reflected as it was by the hundreds of torches along the three main walls. 





“You can do this, Wells,” she whispered to herself, eyes seeking out the watch.  Two men traced the same path back and forth across the small area where she was hiding.  They paced towards each other, then away from each other, each time for no more than a minute.  As she watched them, mesmerized by fear of being caught, the castle walls seemed to get farther and farther away.  What was a few hundred yards to the main gates now seemed miles.


She pulled the black shawl around her shoulders more tightly and pulled down on the black breeches she’d stolen from one of the soldier’s barracks.  Her dark brown hair was pulled back tightly against her head, though loose strands had already fallen forward to annoy her.  She blew out a harsh breath to get one particularly annoying lock out of her mouth. 


“Just…just do it!” she said tightly, locking her jaw with determination.  In front of her, the soldiers on watch met in the middle, exchanged glances, then turned away from each other.  In the opening, Wells jogged, bent down low, praying that the wet ground wasn’t too loud.  Threading a needle, you’re just threading a needle, she told herself.


Every second she imagined they would hear her, turn around and….But they didn’t.  Judging her minute almost up, she fell to the ground and imitated a rock, facedown in the mud.  She didn’t even breathe, fearful that they would see her lying their in the darkness.


Counting under her breathe, she risked a look around behind her in time to see the two soldiers meet in the middle again about thirty feet behind her.  They turned and walked away form each other.  She got up quickly and started running full on for the castle doors.  The soldier on the right caught the movement out of the corner of his eye.


“Hey!” he yelled.


“Runner!” the other soldier shouted towards camp.


“Goddess help me!” she whispered, running faster.  She had always been fast, faster than almost all the boys in the small Danaerian town she’d grown up in.  She just had to hope she was still that fast.


“Stop!” She could hear them running after her.  If one of them got a bead on her with a crossbow, she’d be done for.


“Help!” she screamed at the walls looming up before her.  “Let me in! Goddess please, let me in!”


Movement on the battlements drew her eye, and she could see torches being raised and lowered as Selene’s men gathered at her cries.  She stared at the huge wooden doors before her, praying beyond hope that the small entranceway hidden in them would open.  She reached the base of the motte and started scrambling up the suddenly steep incline.


An arrow shot past her head to land in the dirt just ahead of her, causing her to scream.  Her tiny bag of things flew from her grasp as her hands went over her head.  She was going to die…oh God, Ravennie, why didn’t I listen to you? 


Suddenly, arrows pelted down from above, the whistling of the shafts driving her to the ground with another scream.  Rolling, she stumbled back to her feet just in time to realize that the shafts were falling behind her.  Slipping in the mud, she almost fell again, tripping on her now completely mud covered shawl, her eyes watching as Farron’s soldiers fell back. She could see some raising their crossbows again.


“Get in here girl!” Someone yelled from just above her.  Turning again, she saw the most beautiful sight.  The small door was open, and one of Selene’s guards was yelling at her to get inside.  Grinning stupidly, she got her feet under her and started running up again.


She almost made it before an arrow embedded itself in her right shoulder.  Screaming, she fell just feet from the open door.  The soldier – an enormous man with a huge beard – jumped out and pulled her up.  Throwing the small girl over his shoulder he took her inside, slamming the heavy door behind him.


Barely aware, she felt herself carried through the small lodge inside the gatehouse (to avoid the portcullis and the second set of heavy oak doors) and into the courtyard.  There the guard lay her down gently, mindful of the arrow in her shoulder.


“Fetch a healer!” the guard yelled, at the forming crowd.  He turned back to look at her, and she noticed that he had blue eyes like her aunt Nettie – warm and old. 


“Who are you, girl?” he asked, brushing mud from her face.


Wells tried to smile, “Wells….Wellssandra Casey…” she whispered, “I am…was…one of Farron’s oracles….”


“Okay, Miss Casey, you just hang on there,” the guard replied, his eyes wrinkled with worry.  “My name is Jack.  You’re going to be just fine, you hear me? Just fine….”


But Wells didn’t hear his comforting words, her eyes already closed against the encroaching darkness.



As Ezra had described, the climb was nasty, and the stench didn’t help.  At one point, JD did in fact throw up, which nearly sent some of the others to follow him.  Only Ezra’s whispered, “we’re here!” managed to distract them. 


The had been following the thief’s torch as it bobbed up and down ahead of them, and when it finally stopped, a sigh of relief was heard among them all.  Ezra handed the torch to Chris and pointed towards a series of tiny tunnels, none more than half a foot wide.


“Those run under the dungeons, which in turn lie under the toilet holes that circle the castle walls,” he explained.  “And this…” he touched a section of the wall, fingers deftly seeking the edges.  Abruptly, something clicked quite loudly, and the scraping of stone on stone was heard as the wall pulled back to reveal stone steps leading up.  “This leads to the passageways.”


Chris leaned forward and shone the torch up the stairs, his expression calm.  Gingerly, he handed the torch back to Ezra and indicated that the thief go first.  Ezra nodded and headed up.  When Josiah brought up the rear, he built a quick wall of air over the still open doorway – to keep out the stench.


After about twenty feet, the stairs leveled out and the air was much cleaner.  Cobwebs and rat droppings littered the ground and walls, and the occasional crunch of an insect underfoot marked their otherwise silent progress.  JD continued to stare at the bobbing torch, afraid that he would lose it again.  Nathan patted his back comfortingly.


“The bed chambers are around here,” Ezra whispered, lowering the torch. The passageways were quite obviously cleaner in this area.  There were fewer cobwebs, and the dust beneath their feet had footprints in it.  “Buck, do you recognize where we are?”


The ladies man looked around, peering at the walls for some sort of sign.  A spot of red paint on a wall had him smiling.  “Oh, yes…” he agreed.  “We’re in the East Wing…near the royal bed chambers.  Damn, Ezra, I’m impressed.”


“Likewise,” came the sardonic reply.  “Would you like to take the lead?”


“Sure,” Buck slipped past Chris and Vin to reach Ezra at the front, and took the torch.  Smiling at the thief, he took a deep breath and started measuring his footsteps.  After a few moments, he stopped before a blank piece of wall with another splotch of red paint on it.  Like Ezra had down below, his fingers traced the edge of the doorway until something clicked.


Far more quietly, the door shifted open in Buck’s direction to reveal a heavy red and gold tapestry.  Smiling even more now, the Captain reached forward and gently brushed it aside.  As he stuck his head out into the room, he stopped when he felt the freezing cold steel of a blade at his throat.


“Don’t move!” a woman’s voice hissed.  “I am the daughter of Tilluria’s greatest champion, and I know how to use this.”




The sword clattered to the floor, “Buck?”


“Louisa!” the Captain almost fell into the room, his arms catching the tall red-headed woman in his arms in a tight embrace.  The other six men silently followed him in, roughly forming a semi-circle near the curtain.  No one said anything as Princess Eloise held onto the Bryshnian Captain of the Guard as a drowning man a life raft.


“Oh God, Louisa, I’ve missed you,” the tall man whispered, taking in her scent.  The princess shook a little, all the pent up fear and strain of the siege being released for a moment as he held her.  In the background, JD turned a puzzled gaze to Vin, his lips forming the word “Louisa?”  Vin just shrugged and mouthed back “nickname?”


“Buck, my love, what are you doing here?”  Carefully, Eloise drew herself out of his arms, and he was surprised to note that she was fully dressed, despite the late hour.  It had to be close to two in the morning by now.


“Why aren’t you asleep?”


“Why aren’t I…? Buck, answer my question!”  She looked around at the other men, her brown eyes glinting with the firelight from the large hearth close to the secret entrance.  She stepped away from him then, and tried to straighten her clothes in a poor attempt not to appear suddenly frightened at the sight of so many strangers in her anteroom at this time of the morning.  Her eyes caught Chris and her jaw fell open slightly.


“Sir Larabee?  I was told you were dead?” She looked at the others, hey gaze lingering on Ezra for a moment as if she recognized him before moving on.  When she saw Vin, her eyes widened.


“The scout,” she breathed.  “Oh my God,” she looked back at Buck, who was still smiling somewhat stupidly, “does this mean that you found her? That…that you know how to end this war?”


“Princess Eloise,” Vin said, bowing low.  “I…no, not exactly.”


“Not exactly? Buck?”  Her voice pleaded for explanation.




“No, you call me by my proper name,” she said suddenly.  “I am a princess…at least for now.” She swallowed, her dignity returning.  She patted curly red hair back and stood up straight.  “Now, why have you invaded my room at this time of night?  If I hadn’t been up thinking on tomorrow’s events, I might have been asleep when you came.  I…I am a princess of Tilluria, and such an entrance is most…well, it’s wrong.  I take it you have a good explanation?”


“Your highness,” Chris stepped forward and executed a smooth bow.  “We are here because we need your help.”  He paused, licking his lips. “We have come because we need to get you and your mother out of here before Farron can kill you.”



Queen Selene paced the small room behind the great hall, watching with black-rimmed blue eyes as the healer finished knitting Wells’ shoulder. 


“Can you wake her?” the Queen demanded, her fingers dancing by her sides in a nervous fashion.


“She needs rest,” the healer replied, brushing aside some of the young girl’s hair from her forehead.  There were dried patches of mud all over the her face, but the man could easily see the beauty of youth underneath.


“I know, Kojay, but I don’t have the luxury of waiting on her.  She risked her life to get in here tonight and, if she is indeed an Oracle, and Farron’s Oracle at that, then I need to know why.”


“I understand, Selene, but if I wake her too early, her body may not be able to replenish the energy I just stole to heal her wound.  You have to let her have at least until morning – three hours at most.”


“What if Farron attacks in that time?  I have no idea how valuable this girl is to him.”


Selene…if she dies, we will never know.  I promise, I will wake her when the sun breaks the horizon.  That should be enough time.”




Selene, no.”


The Queen frowned at the healer, her jaw tight with emotion.  Finally, she nodded.  “I will be back when the sun rises,” she informed him.


The old man smiled, “I expect nothing less, my love.”


Selene stopped where she was heading out the door to look back at him with quieter eyes. The blue in them seemed to deepen as she watched the healer turn his mind back to helping the girl on the table. 


“Good,” she whispered once, before turning again to exit the room.  Kojay’s smile turned into a grin.



“You want me to convince my mother to leave the Castle? While it’s under siege?  Are you crazy?  She’d rather die.”  Eloise bent over and picked up her sword, a light broadsword with a ring hilt, much like Buck’s.  Standing up straight again, she played with it, tapping it lightly against the side of her long dress.


“Which is exactly what we have to prevent,” Buck said, steering Eloise over to a chair.  Farron will win if you and your mother die.  He will become unstoppable.”


“Unstoppable?”  Eloise shook her head and moved away from Buck’s arms to stay standing.  “Buck, my mother can not run from her enemies.  Even if it means her death, it is her duty to fight until the last.  And I will fight with her.  Tilluria will live on, even in our memory, and they will fight Farron until he is gone from our land like the scourge he is.”


“No, Eloise, you don’t understand,” Buck said angrily.


“Well, then help me to understand.” She drew her arms around her, standing at full height.  She was tall – almost five foot ten – and she did her best to meet Buck’s gaze on an even plain.


Farron has gotten stronger with each kingdom he has conquered, your highness,” Chris said, stepping forward into the firelight.  “He is gaining more than just manpower and supplies for his armies, he has also gained blood magic.”  The Princess turned to look at him, her eyes confused.


Eloise frowned, “What?”


“Blood magic, your highness,” Josiah chimed in.  Farron has learned to wield the keys of three of the kingdoms.  He is a sorcerer as powerful as any mage.  More so.”


Eloise frowned more deeply, “You aren’t serious?” she asked.


“Oh, absolutely, your highness.”


“And, who are you, again?” Her voice rang with sarcasm.


“Mage Josiah Sanchez, highness.  I was educated at Rhea and worked as High Mage there for ten years.”


“High Mage…a wielder of elemental magic.  And yet you believe in the myths of blood magic?  Surely…”


“Highness, they are not myths.  Not anymore.”


Eloise frowned and arched an eyebrow at Buck.  The Captain’s face was stony.


“He is telling the truth, Eloise. Blood magic is real, and Farron has learned how to capture it.”


She smiled, waiting for the joke, but faltered when it was clear there wasn’t one.  She shook her head and drew in a patient breath.


“Fine…blood magic is real,” she flashed Buck a displeased look. “And I am told this by a former High Mage, my ex-lover, a paladin believed dead and a lowly scout.  And…and who are you others?”  She looked at the three who hadn’t spoken yet.


“JD Dunne, your highness, of Four Corners” JD bowed low, almost falling over.  Buck rolled his eyes, but Eloise actually smiled.


“Thank you Master Dunne,” she said.  JD grinned widely and backed up out of the way.  Turning, Eloise looked to the Moor.


“Healer Nathan Jackson, of Cathacus, your highness,” Nathan also bowed, his execution flawless.  She nodded back.


“And Lord Ezra Standish,” Chris said, pointing to the thief.  Ezra had taken off his mask when he reached the tunnels behind the bed chambers so the Princess could see his face.


“At your service, your highness,” he said smoothly, also bowing low.


She looked at him, recognition once more flaring in her mind.  But, once again, it slipped away.  Something else, however, stuck out more obviously.


“You are Danaerian,” she hissed, her dark eyes flashing.  “Your accent….”


“Yes, your highness, but while I may love my home, I have no such feeling for my King.”


Eloise’s eyes narrowed, her anger demanding that she kill the man where he stood, and her fingers curled tighter around the hilt in her hand.  “You trust him, Buck?”


The Captain hesitated, ever so briefly, but it was enough to make Eloise turn a curious gaze. 


“Yes, I do,” he said, after a moment.  She frowned again, but didn’t know what to make of his delayed response.


“He is one of the men I was sent to find, highness,” Vin stepped in, “and I trust him completely.”  His voice held true conviction, and Ezra couldn’t hide his surprise as he looked at the scout.  Eloise, however, merely sighed upon hearing the scout’s voice.


“Yes…sent to find,” she pressed a hand to her forehead.  “You were sent to find the means to save us, scout, to save Tilluria from Farron’s army.  But it appears you are too late.”


Vin bowed his head and backed away, “I…I know what I was sent for, highness.”


“You are all so certain Tallus will fall,” she said, looking at him and at Buck and Chris.  “You are so sure that Farron will kill us.  You, Master Tanner, were supposed to find out salvation, but all you have found are a handful of men who want me and my mother to run, and some nonsense about the old legends.”


“Your highness, I….”


“That’s all right, Master Tanner.  I never truly believed in the Oracle’s words anyway.  My mother saw it only as a last resort…but clearly it was no resort at all.  We will lose this Castle and Tilluria will fall.”  Finally, she did sink into the chair that Buck had led her too.  He placed his hands on her shoulders.


“Louisa…I don’t know what to….”


“Buck,” she reached up to touch his hand, “my mother held hope that Master Tanner would find something.  Some powerful elemental mage, or a great weapon…but it was only a dream.  I know that now.”


“Your highness,” Chris stepped forward again, kneeling down in front of her.  “Your highness, I know that all may seem lost, but we have come to believe that there is still a chance to save the Kingdoms.  There may be a way to stop Farron still, even if he takes your castle.  But we can not do it if you and your mother are killed when he does.”


Eloise watched him tiredly, “I already told you, she will not…”


“She must, your highness.  Farron must not kill you.  Even if you do not believe what we said about blood magic, the people must still have someone to rally behind when Farron falls.  They will need a monarch to hail, and to follow into battle.  Adenn and Rhea have none left.  You and the Queen must survive.”


“If we leave, the people will believe us deserters, Sir Larabee.  As with any good captain who can not leave his ship, you must know that we cannot abandon Tallus.”


“This is not a ship, Princess.  This is merely a fortification.  Tilluria is much bigger than this one castle, and it is Tilluria that you must fight for now; the ship still floats so long as you are there to keep it that way.”


“Louisa, listen to him.”


“I…” she stared at the men circling her, her eyes bright.  “This is my home.”


“Homes can be rebuilt,” Vin stated firmly. “Eloise, you must help us get you and your mother out of here.”


“And we need to leave now, tonight, before Farron finds out we are here,” Ezra added. He looked over at Josiah, “after all, he has two Oracles of his own, does he not?”  The mage nodded.  Eloise frowned again at the mention of the old magic again, her skepticism showing on her face.  Abruptly, she stood, nearly knocking Chris backwards where he was still kneeling in front of her.


“Even if I agreed, we can’t leave now,” she said. “Not before tomorrow.”


“Why?” Chris frowned, standing up.  “What is tomorrow.


“The emperor has requested an audience with my mother, Sir Larabee.  He knows that Tallus can hold out for months under siege, and I believe he seeks to find a compromise.”


“No! You can’t let him in here!” Vin said quickly. Eloise jumped at his raised voice.


“My mother will no bend to him, Master Tanner, don’t worry.  But he has requested a meeting under a flag of truce.  Diplomacy alone requires that we meet with him.”


“Chris, you know what he plans.  This is how he will get close to her.  He’ll kill her, Chris, tomorrow, and take the final key.”  Vin’s agitation had spread to the others, and Buck gripped the back of Eloise’s chair.


“He’s right, Louisa.  Selene can not let him in here.”


“Buck, it’s not up to me what…”


“Then we must get to the Queen.  Eloise, Vin has the right of it,” Chris’s eyes flashed, his hands instinctively going to the sword at his waist.


“You’re mad!”  Eloise shook her head at them.  “What can he do inside a castle filled with soldiers who want to kill him?  There is no way he could get her alone, much less kill her.  And besides, a flag of truce….”


“Princess, this is not a question of reason.  Fallon would never seek to compromise, much less offer a cease fire unless he could use it to his advantage.  He will come here to kill her and you, of that there can be no question.” Chris’s voice was firm.


“How?” she demanded.  “In a room surrounded by soldiers, how will he get to her, to us?”


“I don’t know, your highness, but magic will be involved, of that I am sure.  We must find the Queen and warn her now.”  Chris looked at Buck, who nodded.


“Will you come willingly, Louisa, or must we drag you.”


Her mouth fell open in indignation as she stared at the Captain. Then she noted the steel gazes on each of the men in the room, even the boy. 


“I am obviously outnumbered, here,” she stated weakly.  “You do not have to drag me, but I can not guarantee that my mother will listen to you any more than I have.”


“Perhaps not, your highness, but we can hope.”



“What do you mean she has run!Farron yelled, shoving the lieutenant to the floor.


“Sir, I swear I…”


“You swear? You swear nothing, knave!  Give me your sword!”


The lieutenant shuddered under the cold gaze of the man towering over him, his eyes bright with fear. With shaking hands, he drew the cavalry sword from his waist and offered it hilt first to the emperor.  Farron grabbed it roughly and slashed the air a few times above the lieutenant’s head.


“She made it into the castle, lieutenant, while on your watch.  Your men failed to stop her, a penalty for which will be twenty lashes for each man.  And you…you,” he grimaced, lifting the sword high, “will pay the ultimate penalty.”  In a swift move, the sword came down, splitting the man’s chest straight through to the dirt beneath him.  In the background, Ravennie squealed slightly.


The lieutenant breathed once more, his voice gone before he could scream, and soon his shuddering stopped.


“Take him out of here,” Farron ordered to the two soldiers manning the entrance to his tent.  Alone once more, the emperor turned around to fins Ravennie shrinking into the walls of the tent, her blue eyes wide with terror.


“Did you know?” he hissed darkly.


“No…no, I didn’t know.  All I know is what I told you.  That the seven are here, and that Wells must have seen it before me and run off.  She was always stronger than me, Farron.  Her sight better.  I’m…I’m sorry.  Please,” she was begging, her voice fading under the strength of her glare.


He reached her in two swift steps and grabbed a fistful of her blond hair in his hand.  “You had better not be lying to me, Ravennie, because if you are…” he left the threat unspoken.


“I’m not, I’m not…Oh Gods, I swear I am telling you the truth.  Please, my lord, my emperor, please!”  she closed her eyes as he twisted his hand more painfully in her hair. He stayed that way for a moment, watching the tears stream down her face over the bruises he’d put there earlier this day.  Finally, he let her go, and she instantly backed as far away from him as possible to the other side of the tent.


“I’ll believe you, Ravennie, for now,” he stared at her a moment longer, then turned in the direction where he knew the castle stood.  “But the presence of those men inside that castle is a problem.  You are certain they are inside?”


“Y…yes,” she whispered.  “I can see them in there.”


Farron wiped a hand across his mouth and sighed.  “Well, then that simply means we have to move a little faster.  It is only an hour until dawn, when I will stand at the gates and demand attention.  Selene can not deny me an audience now.  And then…I’ll simply have to kill them all.”  He looked at Ravennie, who was watching him quietly.


“And you will come with me, my dear, so that you may help me locate these seven men and our missing Oracle.  And you will see what I do to those who disobey me.”



“I do not have time for this!” Queen Selene shouted as she paced her chambers.  Princess Eloise stood by her side, watching her mother closely.  Several soldiers stood about the room, as well as some of the Queen’s more important advisors.  The healer Kojay stood off to one side, watching Josiah with a worried expression.  The mage, however, only had eyes for the pacing Queen.


“Your majesty, please,” Josiah stepped forward, leaning slightly on his staff, “you must listen…”


“It is nonsense, what you are saying! I could not deny Farron now even if I wanted to.  He will be here in an hour, and the whole city knows that negotiations are to commence.  They pray for peace, and if I can find it this day I will.”


“Your majesty, he does not seek peace.  I know this from experience,” Chris spoke loudly, his stance proud, looking every inch the champion that he was.


“While I appreciate your advice, Adenn’s Champion, I am afraid you do not understand the politics of this situation.”


“The politics? He’s coming to kill you!” JD said, jumping into the fray, literally.  A soldier stepped slightly in front of him, blocking him from getting any closer.


“There, see?” Selene pointed to the soldier. “The idea that Farron could even get close to me is preposterous.”


“What about Eloise?”


“My daughter will be safe in her quarters, I assure you.”


Selene, you must listen to them!” Buck said, stepping forward to stand next to JD.


“Buck, I have taken familiarity from you for many years, but I will not take it in this context.  This is a war room, and you will address me properly.   I am Queen of Tilluria, and I will still be queen after Farron leaves.  Today is a merely a truce.”


Josiah grunted.  “Your majesty, this is not about the throne.  This is about power.   He wants yours, and he will take it if he is allowed in here today.”


“Power?  Oh yes, the supposed key of compassion.  Well, Mage Josiah, I’m afraid I can not quite swallow that one.  Blood magic, as my daughter has so aptly told you, is a myth. Made up to frighten children and to keep old wives in business.  It has no place in my kingdom.”


“Then why did you summon the Oracle? And why did you send me to Four Corners?”  Vin asked quickly.


The Queen actually paused at that, staring at the young scout with bright blue eyes. She opened and closed her mouth, then shook her head.


“I can not discuss this now.  I must get ready to meet the Emperor.  After he is gone, we can talk again.”


“Don’t let him in, your majesty. Please,” Nathan had his hands bunched up into fists. “It will mean the end of us all if you do.”


She stared at him, her eyes dark.  She looked at Ezra, “And you? Have you nothing to add Danaerian?”


Ezra had been watching the floor, but, with a deep swallow, he raised his eyes to meet the old queen’s.  She raised an eyebrow, feeling the same sense of recognition as Eloise, but, as with her daughter, it was only fleeting.  Ezra met her gaze, and, slowly, shook his head.


“You want to die, then let him in.  We will try to protect you,” he stated firmly.  She frowned, her jaw clenched.


“Your majesty,” Kojay said, stepping forward, “Perhaps there is more to this than what it seems.  Perhaps Farron….”


“While I respect your voice, I have no choice, Healer Kojay,” she interrupted, daring him with a gaze. Kojay looked away.  Turning back to the newcomers, the Queen straightened her shoulders.  “Now leave us, all of you.  Eloise, get back to your room and stay there.  Buck…you may go with her, if you feel she needs the extra protection.  The rest of you…men,” she glanced at the Seven, “the rest of you are welcome in the great hall in an hour to watch the negotiations.”


Chris growled, unable to hide his frustration, but a soldier quickly moved to stand in his path.  Frowning, he took a deep breath and backed away.  Together, the Seven followed Eloise and a handful of guards out of the room.


Once the door was shut, Chris called a halt.  The Princess, seeing that they were no longer behind her, stopped and waited. 


“Ezra, last time I was here, I noticed a peephole grate up along one wall of the great hall.  Do you know how to get in there?” Chris asked quickly.  The thief nodded.


“Yes.  It’s simple.”


“Simple enough that Vin could find it without you?”


“Yes, the entrance is in a small room not far from the great hall, directly behind a suit of rather atrociously designed armor.”


“Good. Vin, I want you and JD up inside that peephole.  If I remember rightly, it’s a tight squeeze, but it should give you a solid shot with a small crossbow at Farron should he indeed not be coming to make peace.” He sneered as he spoke, and Vin nodded.


“Buck, Ezra, I want you to take Eloise to her room.  Should anything happen, I want you to get her out of her out the back passageways, understood?  Drag her if you have to.”


“Yes sir,” Buck said.  Ezra nodded.


“Josiah, Nathan, and I will flank the great hall.  I have a feeling that Farron will have a means to get the soldiers out of there, and Selene alone…somehow.  I want us to be ready to dive in should we have to.”  The paladin glanced up the hallway to Eloise, who was tapping her foot impatiently.


“He will not get the key of Compassion, understood?  We will not let him.”



Chapter Eleven: Deathwatch


Wells woke slowly, her eyes adjusting to her strange surroundings, blinking at the early morning sunshine slanting across the room.  It was a small cell-like bedroom with a narrow cot and some simple pieces of furniture, all of which was emblazoned with a distinct crest.  As her muddied brain sought to recognize the heraldry, she worked on recalling where she was….  


With a gasp, her memory of the night before flooded back and her hand went to her shoulder.  The heat of the wound was still there, but otherwise the skin was undamaged.


“Goddess,” she whispered, impressed, pulling the fabric of the nightgown she wore down in order to look at it.  A moment later, she struggled to her feet, ignoring a slight wave of dizziness, and pressed a hand against the cold stone, whitewashed wall.  Closing her eyes, she let her mind wander the castle.  Like a moth to a flame, she was drawn instantly to him.  With a smile, she searched around for her clothes.  In moments, she was dressed and at the door, her hand shaking as she rested it on the latch, wondering if it was locked.  Closing her eyes again, she imprinted his direction on her mind, then tested the latch.


It opened.   


 “All right, brown one,” she said pulling open the door to the room and checking the hall.  It was quiet, not even a servant roamed the stone floor.  “I’m coming.”



Farron watched as the small door inside the main gates of the castle swung open to reveal a handful of guards and, from the looks of it, Selene’s Lord Chancellor.


“Your imperial majesty,” the Lord Chancellor greeted, bowing low.


“Your lordship,” Farron greeted back. Behind him, Ravennie lowered her head in a slight bow.  The Lord Chancellor looked at her curiously before looking back at Farron.


“Her majesty awaits you inside the Great Hall, emperor.  If you will follow me?”


“Of course,” Farron smiled and stepped inside. 



Ezra paced the small chamber, trying not to listen to Buck and Eloise's heated whispering in the other room.  He knew the Captain was still determined to get Eloise to leave with him now, but he could also tell that the red haired princess was just as determined to stay.  With a sigh, he rubbed his hands together impatiently and moved to the windows overlooking the Clythe Valley, his eyes drifting towards the city spires in the distance.  The sun was only just reaching into the deep valley to light up the towers, lifting the shadows. 


He was considering opening the glass to breathe in the smell of the morning air when something caught his eye.  Leaning forward slightly, he tried to look down the still shadowed wall. 


Was that…movement?


He leaned forward more, and his eyes widened in sudden fear.


“Buck!  Get her out of here!” he shouted, jumping back from the window and pulling his dagger from this belt.  At almost the same instant, the two main windows shattered inwards under the force of powerful air magic, created by Farron's mages, sending the thief and every other loose object flying backwards across the room along with hundreds of glass fragments. 


The Captain ran into the ante room just as Ezra was picking himself up off the floor, his clothes shredded in places.  Buck's shock increased as several men dressed entirely in black swarmed over the sills of the windows, like ants erupting from a nest.   


“Where the hell….?”


“Move!" Ezra yelled, lurching the rest of the way to his feet and running across to the Captain, shoving the taller man backwards, causing Buck to stagger back into the windowless bed chamber where Eloise now stood gripping her own sword.  Slamming the double doors behind him, Ezra held onto the handles as the weight of several men hitting the other side tried to force them open again.  His whole body bucked as the doors shook under the blow. 


"Where'd they come from?" Eloise gasped.  "How….?"


"They climbed up the wall," Ezra hissed, bucking forward again as the doors were hit again.  "No one thought to guard the cliff."


“Because…it's impossible to climb! It's a sheer wall! How could they…?”


“Doesn't mater! They did!"  Ezra switched his gaze to Buck, who looked torn between helping Ezra and guarding Eloise.  "Use the passageways, Buck!  Get her out of here! I’ll hold them off!”


“What?  I can’t leave you…”


“Get the hell out of here Buck, now!” he grunted as the men pushed at the door.  “Eloise must survive, damn it!  Remember the Key!  Farron can’t take it if she survives!”


K..key?”  Eloise looked nonplussed, blinking.


Buck shook his head, “Ezra…”


“Go, you bastard, go now!”


Buck gritted his teeth, then reached over and grabbed Eloise's sword arm, “Don't get yourself killed Ezra!”


“I'll try not to, Captain.  Now go!”


Nodding, Buck pulled Eloise to the hidden doorway.  In moments, they were through and gone.


Ezra ducked as a mace head splintered the wood over his head.  He arched an eyebrow at the hole and took a deep breath as the doors buckled again.


“Hells Bells are tolling,” he muttered.  “No point in hiding anymore.”


Releasing the handles, he jumped back and pulled his sword free of the scabbard.  Seconds later, the door’s smashed open under the charge of about fifteen men dressed in clothes as black as the thief’s.  They stopped in the doorway when they saw Ezra standing inside…alone.


“Welcome to your reckoning, my friends,” the thief grinned, spinning his sword around his hand, right before he charged.



“Where is the damned entrance,” Vin muttered, his fingers tracing the walls of the small room.  “Ezra said it was behind the armor, damn it!  Why isn’t it here?”  He glared at the suit of old armor standing attention behind him, as if accusing it of lying to him.


JD was checking another wall, “maybe they moved the armor?” he suggested, fingers trying to find the telltale creases of a door.


“Why would you move armor?  It’s heavy!”  Vin was gritting his teeth, getting more frustrated by the minute.


“Maybe its color was fading?” JD suggested weakly.  The armor was buffed to a solid shine – heavily inlaid with gold, it was clear the suit was for ceremonial use only.  Vin looked at the pieces, noticing for the first time how much they gleamed.


“It’s metal JD; it doesn’t lose color, and besides, it's standing in the light now.  The sun would hit it full force in this position for most of the day.”


“It was just a suggestion,” the kid muttered.


“They might have moved it to clean it,” a quiet voice said from the doorway.  “To see it better in the light?  Perhaps it used to be against the wall where the sun doesn’t hit?”


Both men jumped at the intrusion, and Vin instinctively rotated the small crossbow on his shoulder to point at the newcomer.  He lowered it when he realized he was pointing at a young girl.


“Who are you?” JD asked, sheathing the dagger he had also drawn.


Wellssandra Casey," she stared at JD with wide brown eyes, and an impossible bright smile blossomed on her face, "And you're the brown one.  I am so glad I’ve found you!”


“I'm the wha…?” JD looked at Vin, who raised his crossbow again, his expression dark.


“No, wait!” Wells waved her hands in front of her, then grimaced as her shoulder twinged with pain.  Ow,” she moved to grip it with her hand.


“You’re hurt?” JD said, stepping forward.


“No, no, it's healed.  It’s just recent.  I was shot last night, coming here to find you.” She smiled at JD, then looked at Vin as if an afterthought, “And you as well, Vin Tanner.”


“To find us?" Vin wasn't about to lower the bow, no matter how harmless she looked, "What do you want?”


“To help, if I can.  I am an Oracle, like your Hannah.  When I saw you arrive, I left Farron to reach you.”


“Left Farron…You are one of his Oracles?” JD gasped.


“No," she said peevishly, "I was one of his Oracles," her face lit up in a smile again, "but I escaped.”


“Why?” Vin challenged.


Her smile fell completely, “I had to warn you.  He plans to kill the Queen and the Princess today.  You must get them out of here.”


Vin smiled thinly, “Yeah, we knew that already.”


“You do?”  Wells blinked in confusion, “But then, why are you still here?”


“Because Selene wouldn’t listen to us.  And now it is too late.  Farron will already be inside.”


“More than just him,” Wells whispered.  “He sent men to scale the cliffs last night below the river wall.  Not many, but enough to distract the guards enough to leave only a few guarding Selene.  And, if they did their job right, they will have already gotten to the Princess.”


“Oh Gods, Buck," JD's eyes widened, "Vin, we have to go warn—”


“We don’t have time now, JD.  Chris's plan is still good.  If Eloise is really already dead, then we have to make sure the Queen is covered.”


“But Vin—”


“Find the entrance, JD.  Can you help us find it, Oracle?”


“My name is Wells, and, no, not really.  I deal with people, not walls.”


“Yeah, but your idea about the armor was a good one,” JD said, glancing at Vin.  He moved to the far wall where the sun wouldn’t normally reach during the day, and bowed down to the floor. 


“There are scuff marks here, Vin,” he called.  Looking up at the wall, he started feeling inside the cracks between the stones at what he imagine to be the right height.  A moment later, something clicked, and the door slid open.


Vin nodded, “All right, kid!”  Swinging the small crossbow onto his shoulder again, he stepped into the narrow passageway and looked up at the tiny stairs leading to a tunnel only about a foot and a half wide in either direction.  JD looked back at Wells, who stepped forward.


“I’m coming with you, brown one.  I'm not letting you go now that I've found you."


“The name’s JD, Miss Casey.”


“Okay, JD,” she whispered, blushing slightly.


“You coming?” Vin said angrily from somewhere inside the walls.


“Yeah!” JD pushed into the tiny space and looked up at where Vin had made it up to.  The scout grimaced down at him, his hands clenched in fists.


“I hate tiny spaces,” he growled down at the kid, shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath.  “Hate them, hate them, hate them,” he muttered.  JD smiled weakly at the statement.


“That I can help with, a little,” Wells said.  Closing her eyes, she sent the image of a large open field into his mind.  The scout’s eyes widened.


“Wow…thank you,” he whispered.  Looking down the tiny passage, it somehow seemed less small.  “All right, here we go….”



Farron swept into the Great Hall, his long black cloak rising behind him.  Gathering it over one arm, he bowed low to the Queen as she sat on her throne, head held high.


“Your majesty, it is an honor to see you again,” he intoned.  Ravennie and a handful of Farron's men entered behind him, all disarmed except for daggers.  Along each side of the throne, four soldiers in red-gold livery stood guard, and about twenty more lined the walls. 


Selene stood and stepped down off the dais to meet Farron in the center of the long hall. She too curtsied, but not as low, “Likewise, your majesty.”  It was not lost on Farron that she did not call him “imperial majesty,” as her Lord Chancellor had.  However, like him, she glanced curiously at Ravennie, but didn’t say anything.


“I take it your wife will not be joining us, Farron?” the Queen said coyly.  Farron shook his head at the implied barb. 


“No, she is indisposed at the moment, and residing in Rhea.  I saw no need to bring her into battle.  However, you seem to have no similar compunction to safely secure your current lover,” his eyes flashed behind the queen to the old Healer standing off to one side. Kojay raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn’t respond.  Next to him, the Lord Chancellor screwed up his face slightly.


Meanwhile, Farron gazed lazily around the rest of the room, but he saw no sign of anyone else other than soldiers.  Where were Hannah’s seven men?  He glanced at Ravennie, but the Oracle was staring at the floor.


Selene backed away to stand proudly in the center of the room, early morning sunlight glinting off the plain gold circlet she wore on her head. “Regardless, I take it you have come to try and negotiate an end to this conflict, Farron?”


“To end the conflict, yes,” Farron replied, smiling.  Selene’s eyes narrowed.


“May I ask how?” she asked.


“Oh, I think you’ll find out in a minute,” he drawled, his Danaerian accent thick on his tongue. She frowned, not sure how to answer this.


Suddenly, the doors to the hall crashed open.  “Invaders, your majesty!” a guard yelled. “They climbed the river wall!  We need help!” Then the young guard disappeared, ostensibly to head back to the fight.


Farron! What have you done!” she yelled angrily.  The emperor continued to smile.


“Merely tip the scales, Selene.”


“Guards! Seize him!” Selene yelled, backing up to throne.  Farron laughed as the soldiers on the walls descended on him and his men.  He threw up an arm and made a deep sweeping motion, and yellow fire erupted from his hand to encompass about half of them.  On the throne, the Lord Chancellor and Kojay each pulled their swords, moving forward to guard Selene. 


Those of Selene’s guard still standing shakily but determinedly surged over the bodies of their comrades to continue to defend their Queen.  Farron could not throw another surge of power in such a short span of time, so he jumped back, allowing the guards he’d brought to cover him.  In the background, Ravennie had run to cower by a far wall.


At the same time, from behind the throne, more of Farron’s men in black appeared, as if from nowhere.  Spinning around, Kojay and the Lord Chancellor moved to engage them, but the Healer was too slow.  One of the men got him in the side before he could get his guard up. 


“No!” Selene screamed, surging forward to reach Kojay’s side.  Farron’s man backed away from her and turned to help fight the Lord Chancellor, who was badly outnumbered.  She didn’t notice that the invaders were not moving to harm her as well, and reached to grab her love’s sword.


Farron was simply standing with his arms crossed smugly over his chest, enjoying the show as his men attacked the remaining guards.  He peeked around them to see Selene attacking some of his men who had come up from behind.  She wouldn’t last long.


 Then, he felt it.


 Like a prickling along his neck.  Whipping around, he found himself staring at three men standing in the large entranceway to the Great Hall.


The one in the middle raised his sword with both hands, a long silver broadsword with an iridescent handle.  The sword of the Brishnian paladin.  To his right stood a mage with a staff in one hand and a double headed axe in the other.  On the other side stood a tall Moor in dark purple silks, carrying a black rapier and main gauche.


Farron grinned, “Well there you are,” he welcomed, almost warmly.  He threw out a bolt of power in their general direction, then ran sideways around the mess of guards in the middle to reach Selene where she was fighting some of Farron's men on the dais.  Chris, Josiah and Nathan dove out of the way just in time to avoid getting burned by the blood magic.


Chris grunted and got to his feet first.  With a sharp battle cry, he joined the fray in the middle, which showed two red liveried guards fighting a sea of six black-clad fighters.  He pulled the men in black off the Tillurian soldiers and disposed of four of them quickly.  Nathan, not two steps behind, took care of the other two.  The two Tillurian guards smiled their thanks, and promptly collapsed from blood loss.


Josiah, meanwhile, had gone after Farron, but found he was too slow.


The Lord Chancellor was dead, as were all of Farron’s other men, dispatched by the Queen.  But her sword was now sticking up, stuck in the ribs of one of the dead men, out of her grasp.  She was trying to pull it out, and didn't notice as Farron came up behind her.  She emitted a tiny cry as Farron grabbed her from behind….


And pressed a knife to the Queen’s throat.



Ezra leaned against the wall of the ante chamber, staring at the carnage before him.  Black-clad bodies lay everywhere, and he couldn’t help smiling a little at his little victory.  He could feel the blood on his arms and face, and he vaguely wondered how much of it was his.  No matter. 


From out the door to the hallway, he heard the sounds of fighting.  Selene’s guards would be fighting off the rest of the men who had come in through the windows. 


He looked in the direction of the secret exit, his still rational mind yelling at him to get the hell out of here.


Instead, he staggered off in the direction of the open door and towards the Great Hall.



Vin, JD and Wells crawled through the odd passageway, trusting in Ezra’s directions that it would wind its way back to the Great Hall, but even Vin, who had a powerfully strong sense of direction, couldn’t tell what direction they were heading in.  The small crossbow he carried on his back chafed his back every time he banged it against the low ceiling, and the small quiver of arrows attached to his right leg kept getting caught.  He found himself holding onto the memory of the green field Wells had placed in his mind with increasing desperation.


Behind him, JD looked back to make sure Wells was following.  Her eyes were shining in the dim torchlight, whether from excitement or the pain in her shoulder, he wasn’t sure.  But when she looked back at him and smiled, he felt shivers up his spine.  It seemed as if she could see through him, even though she barely knew him, but pure trust and faith in his actions underlined her gaze.  He smiled back.


She was pretty….Really, very pretty.  She reached forward and touched his calf, sending a jolt up his leg to his chest.


Really, really pretty.


“JD,” Vin hissed, noticing that the two young ones had stopped.


“Coming,” the kid replied, gripping the cloth wrapped short sword in his left hand and resuming his crawling.



Eloise was shaking as Buck gripped her wrist, pulling the red-haired princess behind him with an assured ferocity.  He was leading her back to the top of the waste chute, knowing that, if nothing else, they had to get the princess to safety.


“Buck,” she said quietly, “Buck there is something I have to tell you.”


“There’s no time, Louisa, I’m getting you out.”


“I know.  I just…did you mean that about the blood magic?  The Danaerian said that…that Farron couldn’t take the Key if I survive?”


Buck stopped, noting that she had slowed down and was know pulling at him to stop.  She had come with him willingly so far, but there was something in her voice that suggested she would turn around now if he didn’t answer her sincerely.


“Do you remember the old stories about the Divine Mandate, Louisa?”


She pursed her lips and nodded slowly.  “Of course.  Who doesn’t know of the old myth of the corrupting magic.  Mere legend, Buck, like the Fay, or talking animals.”


Buck half smiled and blew the air out of his cheeks.  It was a mistake, as the quick inhale sharpened the stink from the waste chute.  Josiah’s wall of air must be fading, he mused.


“The myth is real, Louisa.  It’s all real.  Your mother holds one of the Keys to the Mandate’s power, Compassion, a magic which will be transferred to you should she die.  If Farron kills you, he will get the magic himself, and he will be that much closer to bringing the magic back to life.”


Louisa’s brow furrowed, “Buck, I’m sorry, but it is just so fantastical….”


“The Fay are real, Louisa.  The Gods help me, I know this from experience.  The Mandate is real as well.  If we don’t get you out of here, Farron will have three of the four Keys.”


“Three of the….” The information was confusing.  Surely he meant all four, since she and her mother were the only members of the Kingdoms royal families left other than Farron himself, and his son.  Shaking her head, she returned to the task at hand.  The very idea that the Keys could even be real boggled her mind.


“Buck, tell me you lie.  Please.”


“I’ve been face to face with Farron’s power, Louisa.  I saw it kill our mage’s sister–the one Vin Tanner was told to seek out in order to find us.  Now our only hope to stop Farron from becoming more powerful is to make sure you get out of here safely.”


“Buck…” she stood stock still, and began to back away from him back up the passage.  “Rook's Tongue, Buck.  We can’t leave.  We must go help my mother.”


“Louisa, I’m not going to…”


“I’m not her real daughter, Buck.  I’m not her blood.  I’m her stepdaughter.” She delivered the words quietly, her voice dead.  “If she dies, Farron will get the Key.”



Farron grinned as he brought the knife higher to the Queen’s throat, dragging her back towards the throne and away from the three men now flanking him.  Josiah, Chris and Nathan kept an even pace with his progress.


“You can’t kill me, weak ones,” the Emperor snarled.  “I know your plan.  I knew you were here.  Ravennie there sensed you the minute you came inside this castle.”  He pulled the Queen higher, earning a gasp from her, and indicated with a tilt of his head the blond woman cowering off to one side.  Ravennie stood looking at the ground, resigned to the fate she had helped weave.


Chris tried not to look up at the small grating high up on the wall to his left, hoping Vin and JD would get here soon.  “We have Princess Eloise safe, Farron.  You kill Selene, you will only open yourself up to our swords before you can get out of here as well.”


Farron’s expression darkened, “Even if what you say is true, paladin, I will find her.  You won’t get out of here alive, mark me.”


“I should think that you have the roles reversed here, Farron.  You can’t hit all of us at once with that power of yours, not quickly enough before one of us takes you down.”  He took another step forward, and Farron pulled Selene up the stairs of the dais before the throne.  The emperor calculated his chances of killing Selene and escaping, and realized that the odds were not entirely in his favor.  Suddenly, he looked up, his eyes seeking the grate on the wall.


Vin smiled as he saw the light at the end of the tunnel,  Snuffing out the small torch, he pulled off his quiver of arrows and handed them to JD.  Putting a finger to his lips in the direction of the two younger ones, he drew the crossbow from his back and brought it forward.  Crawling sideways now, he inched up to the grate and cocked the bow with an arrow, using his knees as a brace.  As he pulled the cord into place behind the bolt, he zeroed on Farron’s position.


Down below, Farron’s eyes flashed as he smiled.  The power inside him warned him well in advance of the new threat…and new opportunity.


“Nice try, paladin,” the emperor sneered.  Pulling Selene close, he shot out one hand and pointed at the grate and blasted it.  Vin didn’t have time to move other than toss the crossbow to JD before both he and the grate were hit full force by the blow.  The metal melted instantly, and the scout lost consciousness as he felt himself fall out of the tiny window.


“No!” Chris’s voice rang through the Hall, echoed eerily by JD’s voice as he threw himself forward to try and catch Vin, but the kid was too far away.  Nathan reacted instantly, dropping his rapier to dive under the window, catching Vin just before he hit the floor.  But the weight of the scout from such a high position knocked the healer to the floor, and his head connected unmercifully with the wall.  Both men were out cold.


Taking the distraction for all it was worth, Farron drew his blade across Selene’s throat, the cut deep and true.  The Queen managed a short scream before her life fled, bringing Chris and Josiah’s attention back to him.  Yelling, Chris charged the throne, only to find himself thrown back by an eruption of power that abruptly encircled Farron and Selene.  The paladin too lost consciousness as he came to land about ten feet from the large entranceway.


Josiah was the only one left, but all he could do was stare as the Key of Compassion flared to life, golden bolts of energy surrounding the downed Queen and Farron like a bubble.  Farron’s face erupted in glee as he realized that Eloise must either be dead, or not Selene’s daughter.  In contrast, the mage’s eyes fell to the floor, his whole body drowning in a profound sense of abject failure.


He’d failed. And soon he would be dead.


“I’m sorry Hannah,” Josiah whispered, dropping his staff and axe to the floor with a clatter, and covering his eyes with his large hands.


Up in the hole, JD crawled forward, eyes filled with tears.  Behind him, Wells watched with a trembling jaw as the former stableboy lifted Vin’s crossbow.  Somehow the archer had thrown it far enough to avoid the blast.  With a set jaw, the boy lifted and took aim at Farron’s glowing frame.


Farron laughed and looked up.  “You think you can defeat me with a mere arrow, boy?” He raised his arm almost lazily and twirled a circle with it.


In his little alcove, JD’s hands shook, and he found his aim being drawn away from Farron.


“No!” he screamed, fighting the pull.  Nevertheless, the crossbow continued to move of its own volition…to aim directly at Josiah.  “Oh Gods, Josiah! Help!”


But the mage merely looked up with a haunted gaze, resigned to his fate.  Wells turned away, unable to help, and unable to watch.


JD gritted his teeth, summoning his reserves of strength, until, suddenly, he felt it again.  The world pulsed around him – the stones, the floor of the hall, the dais under Farron’s feet – it all pulsed brown.  Power surged into him, and he wrenched the bolt’s aim away from Josiah.  Behind him, Wells had backed up, her eyes wide as she saw the explosion of energy around the boy.


Farron’s laughter stopped, his confusion evident.


“What?” he cried, backing up and staring at the arrow once more pointed at his heart.


Before he could say another word, JD loosed the bolt.  The self-proclaimed emperor had just enough time to sweep it aside with his power before it reached him. 


The bolt skirted the emperor’s shield, skidding sideways.  But the momentum sent it in almost the opposite direction of the far wall, to hit Ravennie squarely in the chest.  The blond Oracle gasped once, driven back against the wall, her eyes widening in shock as her vision came to reality.  Dumbly, she reached up to touch the arrow sticking out of her chest. 


“Oh sweet Goddess,” she whispered.  Then she crumpled.


“No!” Farron yelled.  The emperor staggered back a step, his hand to his face.


Ravennie!” Wells screamed, lunging over JD as if she would jump out of the tiny window to reach her friend.  JD grabbed her, pulling her back, but not before catching the almost accusatory look she sent at him.


Over by the wall, Nathan blinked his eyes open at the screams, and over on the floor, Chris groaned from his position on the floor.  Vin didn’t move. 


Josiah, meanwhile, was now watching Farron, his eyes steeling into something very cold.  Slowly, he pulled his sickle from out of his belt and hefted it in one hand.  Farron turned to look at him, his green eyes dark.


“You think you still have a chance, old man?” Farron hissed under his breath, his own anger coming to bear.  “None of you will ever get close enough, not even with the power you each seem to have.  The boy up there tries to nock another arrow, or you try to get at me with that sickle, and I’ll strike you both down before the thought can ever be finished.  Don’t you see mage?  None of you can ever get close enough!”


“Oh, I wouldn't be so sure,” a smooth voice whispered by Farron’s ear.  The emperor whirled around, but not before Ezra had driven his gold hilted dagger deep into the man’s back.


“No!” Farron screamed, sending a bolt of energy into Ezra’s chest and blasting the thief backwards onto the throne.  At the same time, his other hand reached up to grab the dagger’s handle in his back, power surging around the blade.  Above, JD desperately tried to set another arrow into the crossbow, but he couldn’t pull the cord back, he wasn’t strong enough.  Josiah, on the other hand, had no such limitations.


He charged with a roar, his sickle raised back in a cutting position.


Still yelling in pain from the dagger, Farron fell backwards, narrowly avoiding having his head taken off.


“This isn’t over!” the emperor hissed, his breathing ragged.  Josiah recovered quickly, bringing the sickle down to split open the prone man’s skull, but, before he could connect, Farron vanished in a golden flash.


The mage stood alone, panting, his sickle embedded several inches into the stone floor in front of him.


At the same moment, Buck and Eloise charged in through the entranceway to the Great Hall, a smattering of bloody but still standing guards behind them.  Both the princess and the Captain held swords, and they both lowered them upon seeing the devastation before them.  Eloise saw her mother on the dais next to Josiah, and she emitted a small cry.  On the floor before them, Chris looked up at the sound, his expression a bit dazed.  Slowly, he turned to look around the room.  He stopped when he saw Nathan.


The healer was on his knees, looking down at Vin’s body.  When he felt Chris’s eyes on him, he shook his head.


“I’m sorry, Chris.”


“No,” the paladin surged to his feet, “you’re wrong.”


“Chris, he’s already….”


“Try anyway,” Chris demanded.  Gritting his teeth, the paladin limped across to kneel on the other side of Vin and placed his hands on the still chest.  As Nathan had before, he looked for a heartbeat, not caring that no movement came from the tracker at all.  Eyes almost black looked desperately at Nathan, who could only look away. 


“This is not how it ends,” Chris stammered at the Moor.  “It’s not supposed to be like this.  Try again.”


Nathan grimaced, but didn’t say no.  For no other reason than to placate the paladin, he placed his hands over Vin’s heart.  At the same time, Chris closed his eyes and gripped Vin’s tunic in his hands.  This couldn’t be, he told himself.  It can’t be this way, I won’t let it….


Nathan’s eyes shot open, and he drew his hands back hastily.  “By the Gods,” he whispered.


As he spoke, a black nimbus seemed to envelop Chris and Vin, drawn out by Nathan’s probing and Chris’s desperation.  Everyone in the room felt it – the stuff of death and rebirth, the most base of all elements.  After a moment, the light became iridescent, taking on a greenish hue, as the color of death mixed with its sister element, the color of life.  The light grew brighter with each second, and the black became submerged beneath the green, until only the green was left.  Chris let go, opening his eyes slowly, and backed away.


Vin’s chest heaved as he drew in a breath, then another, and another, until, finally, gray-blue eyes opened to stare up at the ceiling above.


Moments later, the glow was gone.  Blinking, Vin turned his head to look at Chris, and smiled.


“Hey soldier,” he said quietly.  Chris grinned stupidly.


“If I hadn’t of seen it,” Nathan said, his voice tinged with wonder.


Over on the dais, Josiah licked his lips, an odd feeling of jealousy hitting him at the power the two men had just unleashed.  Shaking himself, he turned to look at Ezra, who was sprawled across the throne.  Surprisingly, the thief was staring back at him, a hand to his chest.


“I do believe,” the thief whispered, “that, contrary to evidence, I am also not yet dead.”  He smiled weakly, “The power Farron threw at me was not strong enough to do more than shock my system a little.  He must have been too weak from the knife in his back.”  Josiah frowned, but didn’t say anything as Ezra slowly swung himself around and got to his feet.  When he took a step, however, the thief stumbled, and the mage was there holding him up.


“I think we’ll have Nathan check you out anyway, if that’s all right,” the older man whispered, pushing Ezra back so that he was sitting on the throne again.  Ezra attempted a laugh, but it came out as a cough.


Up above, JD stared at the bodies of Ravennie, the Queen and the other men in the room with a strange expression.  He looked a bit lost as the crossbow sat limply in his hands.  In the background, curled into a little ball, Wells cried lightly over the loss of her best friend.


Eloise moved inside to sit next to her stepmother, brushing a blond hair out of the Queen’s face.  When she looked up again, her tears were gone.


“I can not take the throne,” she said quietly to the men in the room.  By the door, the guard stiffened, their expressions confused.  “I am not Selene’s blood.  The throne, therefore, is empty.”  She turned a blank expression to the bright sunlight streaming in through one of the East facing windows in the room.


Farron has won.  He is now ruler of Tilluria,” she told the cold room, “and Emperor of the Four Kingdoms.”



Continue to Part Four