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The Secret of the Sunstones, Book 1: The Wanton Kingdom

By Jeff Howard

Adventure / Fantasy

Chapter 1: A Prelude

I.š ›Evening of Quartus, Twenty-Eighth Day of Harvestmoon

The world of Gaia was filled with magic and mystery.  A prosperous civilization flourished there, filled with humans who busily went about their lives, ignorant of the danger that lurked in their midst.  Somewhere within its thousand-year prison, a long-forgotten consciousness stirred in its ancient sleep.  The time approached when it would be freed, to once again reign anarchy and destruction upon the world.

Ignorant of this threat, mankind instead focused on rebuilding their lives.  After years of bitter conflict, the event referred to as “The War” had finally ended.  Peace followed, and their world spun in the midst of a revolution that combined a long history of wizardry with newfound science and technology.  It brought order and convenience—and best of all, prosperity to the masses.

Social and economic changes swept throughout the continent, driven in large part by the mighty empire known as Angkor.  Two of its neighbors—Koba and Kitezh—had initiated the War over a border dispute, and had mounted a considerable challenge.  Despite their combined advantage in size and resources, Angkor emerged victorious.  It was largely due to the military brilliance of one man.

Bram Morrison was part of a corps of men known as Gnostic Knights.  They were highly experienced combatants used for missions of strategic importance.  Loyal to the king and feared throughout the land, they trained to be cold-hearted killers.  They made a formidable force during the War, but in the two years of peace since, their kingdom’s dependence on them lessened.  The king’s court no longer deemed their particular specialization as necessary, especially as power shifted from military generals to bankers and businessmen.

The kingdom still used Gnostics for covert operations and foreign intelligence, but Bram feared his career stood on the brink of obsolescence.  In order to justify their continued existence, the government would invent frivolous missions to evaluate their usefulness outside of traditional duties.  However, these ordeals often tested the patience of the Knights as well as the coffers of the king.  With this in mind, Bram felt particularly uneasy over his new mission.

He ran a hand through his argent colored hair, which fell in thick waves down to his shoulders.  It was not a sign of age, but rather a distinctive trait since as far back as he could remember.  In stark contrast, his skin had a youthful appearance with medium complexion, and his face was clean-shaven and chiseled.  His build was muscular, with broad shoulders and thick forearms from years of training.  He carried a strong presence with the kind of poise that turned the heads of those around him.

His features were different from other Angkorians, but he had no way to trace his heredity, since he was raised by foster parents.  He had no memory of his blood parents, but the mother and father who raised him provided plenty of care and nurturing, despite having come from an impoverished village beyond the outskirts of Angkor’s capital.  It was a farming community, with a lifestyle filled with grit and moil.  Bram was no stranger to hard work in his youth.

Despite his humble beginnings, he hungered for strength and knowledge.  Rather than commit himself to the fields, he attended the Academy—and later enlisted in the army, where he out-trained his peers and grew quickly in rank.  In only a few years, he became one of the youngest to reach the rank of Gnostic.

It came with the benefit of captaining his own personal aircraft.  Bram’s ship was an early design, modeled after ships of the sea.  It included brandished white masts, wooden hulls, and on-deck cannons—everything a person might expect from a machine that doubled as a sea-faring vessel, except that it could race through the sky at great speeds.  A precise combination of science and wizardry kept it afloat, and although newer models sported even more marvelous innovations, Bram preferred the speed and agility that made the Heron the envy of the king’s fleet.

His relationship with His Majesty began years ago when he served as an ensign under the command of General Richard Cromwell.  That year, Angkor’s monarch—along with the heir—died in a supposed traveling accident.  Political chaos ensued, and Angkor’s most powerful and influential vied for control.  General Cromwell used his military expertise and impeccable war record to make a move for the Crown.  After eliminating his opponents, he became the first king in Angkor’s short history to originate outside the royal family.

Though Bram and the new king shared a strong history, Richard grew increasingly distant since the War’s end.  He shifted alliances to those who furthered his ambitions, and seemed to lose interest in old loyalties.  In the past, Bram picked and chose his own missions, but now various layers of bureaucracy altered the chain of command.  He no longer reported directly to his liege, but rather through a series of middlemen, each less trustworthy than the last.  And finally—he faced the culmination of all his distaste and frustration.

At first, his mission statement read more like an errand, but for reasons he did not understand, it was given the highest priority.  By special writ, he was ordered to escort a newly appointed chancellor to a region known as Minoa, which lay across the Great Ocean.  Here was a village far from Angkor’s interests, holding little else but the resident wizards, as well as the scores of refugees who ended up there following the War.  In most cases, Bram maintained a genuine respect for these old scholars—but the ones in Minoa held no allegiance to any political leader.  Instead, they followed some kind of village elder who remained forever hidden from public view.

He considered what might have suddenly attracted Angkor’s interests to this pitiful village on the Southern Continent.  He knew of just one point of interest—an old artifact known as a sunstone that had once been worshipped as having a divine connection with the Goddess of the planet.  Minoa was one of four dwellings of these so-called sacred objects.  Although believers of Gaia had maintained a lore of otherworldly power, many respected scholars had researched the sunstones over the centuries and produced no such evidence.  Bram did not believe the stories either, but he knew of nothing else that would draw his king’s intense interest.

The nations of Kitezh and Koba each held their own sunstones, but if these objects held any intrinsic powers, they did nothing to help these countries during the War.  Both once stood as mighty empires, but Angkor defeated their military forces and shattered their economies.  Although their prior rulers were allowed to maintain governance, the nations themselves became puppets to Angkor’s influence.  Vineta—home of the eight clerics—housed the final sunstone.  It was a country far on the outskirts of the continent, with an economy too small to engage in political relations.

Bram once thought the same of Minoa.  He saw little value from a sty adorned with living conditions that only Angkor’s livestock would envy.  Clearly King Richard would not have sent his most venerable resources, unless there was something of high value—but if it were not for the sunstone, then what else?  Bram made it a policy never to start a mission based on vague orders, but he could not avoid it this time.  It left him feeling anxious.

From his personal quarters, he calmed his mind by staring out the window of his aircraft.  He sat at an old oak desk, letting the disappearing rays of a setting sun warm his skin, while taking in deep breaths of crisp ocean air.  From a thousand spans above the water, he watched as delicate waves reflected slivers of sunlight that danced in a myriad of golden hues.  The view never failed to elicit a sense of wonder.

His meditation was interrupted by a pounding on the door.  It was rude and deliberate—the harbinger of an impatient visitor.  He tore himself from the view to beckon the person inward.

“Come in.”

A middle-aged man stormed through the door, dressed in dark silken robes with golden embroidery.  His long, blond hair was pulled back and slick, and his high cheekbones and carefree expression suited his role as a mid-ranking politician.  His name was Virgil Garvey, and he was the very same chancellor whom Bram was ordered to escort to Minoa.  A prideful air surrounded him, and he never even bothered to ask forgiveness for barging in uninvited.

“Captain—it’s time I revealed the details of the mission.”

Bram had waited long enough for this briefing, and felt it apt to make his displeasure known.  “It’s about time, Mister Garvey.  Your orders may supersede mine for the time being—having come directly from the king—but you’d best learn quickly not to keep a Gnostic waiting.”

“There’s no need for formalities, Abraham.  My orders do indeed come directly from His Majesty, and you’d best remember that.”

Bram did not appreciate the tone of disrespect, much less the condescending use of his birth name.  Gnostic Knights stood at the highest rank, and for the most part they achieved respect through fear and intimidation.  Perhaps it was the look of arrogance in the chancellor’s face that angered Bram the most, for he knew he would hold very little influence over this subordinate.

“First tell me why we’re here,” Bram began.  “What’s the king’s interest in a place like Minoa?”

“You mean to say you haven’t surmised?” Virgil returned with an unmistakable smirk.  He clearly enjoyed pulling rank with his temporary status and privileged information.

Bram’s tone darkened, wondering what game the chancellor was playing.  He contained his indignation and pressed for further details.  “I presume we’re here for the sunstone, though last I heard from the Angkorian government, the sunstones were—and I quote— ‘Nothing more than the tawdry ornaments of a dead religion.’  The king wouldn’t send a force of our might to strip Minoan zealots of a worthless icon.”

He spoke of the GaianPriests, an ancient organization, but one whose teachings had recently grown in popularity following in the War’s end.  This was especially true in areas such as Minoa, which accepted many refugees that had been displaced in the aftermath of battles on the Northern Continent.  Like most others, Bram found it irrational to put his faith in a faceless deity—but even so, he recognized the desperation brought about by the horrors of war.

He continued, his tone cynical.  “Am I now to believe that Angkor wishes to research the sunstones, even while countless others have failed?  How much is the government willing to throw forth in resources, just to arrive at the same conclusion?  Or have you somehow unearthed something new?”

As he intended, the remark caused a reaction.  It lasted only a moment, and was nothing more than a twitch of Virgil’s brow, but he knew how to notice such subtleties. “Don’t be presumptuous,” the chancellor responded curtly, clearly hiding something.  “Besides, the details are classified.  All you need to know is that the sunstone is our objective, and the king is willing to expend any cost necessary to retrieve it.”

Bram nearly broke out in laughter before he realized the chancellor was serious.  Virgil’s darkening mood added to the gravity in the room.

“What kind of fool do you take me for, Mister Garvey?  I’m a Gnostic Knight, in command of the king’s most elite squadron.  His Majesty would not deploy us for such a trivial bounty, and I demand the truth.  Why are we really here?  We haven’t lived through war to become gambits in someone’s political game.”

“This is not a game, Mister Morrison,” Virgil returned in a level tone, “and you’d do well to take it more seriously.  I’ll only state that the king’s intelligence in this matter has been well vetted.”

Bram could no longer tolerate the chancellor’s obliqueness.  “I’ve had enough of your secrets!  If the sunstone were so important, then why am I speaking to a newly appointed chancellor, rather than a member of His Majesty’s senior staff?  I demand to know the true purpose of this mission, or so help me—”

He had not intended to lose control, but his voice was filled with anger.  The chancellor’s eyes narrowed.  “I don’t take orders from you, Mister Morrison—and neither does the king need to inform his Gnostics of every detail.  If I were you, I’d put some trust in my liege, and carry out this mission without further insubordination.”

With that said, Virgil walked toward the door.  Before leaving, he looked over his shoulder and tossed out one final remark.  His forefinger pointed accusingly.  “Remember where you came from, Gnostic.  You didn’t start your life in Angkor’s good graces.  If you’re not careful, you’ll have nothing to protect you!”

The thinly veiled threat left Bram speechless.  He scarcely believed that a mere chancellor had mustered such audacity—but Virgil quickly departed, slamming the door shut behind him.

Disrespect of this magnitude was unheard of to an officer of Bram’s rank.  Anyone else would have feared for his life.  Regardless of the king’s mandate, Virgil would pay for his insolence.  Bram decided he would use his influence to unseat the impudent man upon his return to Angkor.  A smile crept upon his lips, as darkness descended in the cabin.  The sun had set, and the rush of air caused by Virgil’s hasty departure had blown out the night lamp.  Yet Bram stewed in his seat a moment longer, contemplating how to gain the upper hand.

II. Before Daybreak of Diapente, Twenty-Ninth Day of Harvestmoon

Rosalyn Reynolds heaved a sigh of disappointment as she absentmindedly stirred her cup of chamomile tea and honey.  The mixture had long since blended, but the repetitive exercise served to placate her troubled mind.

She was the only child of Tom Reynolds, a substantially wealthy and influential banker, who raised her to be one of Angkor’s most privileged.  Her upbringing offered a wide open world, filled with wondrous places, famous people, and important events. 

Many considered her quite beautiful, with long voluminous blond hair, light complexion, and a supple feminine figure with athletic build.  Her deep brown eyes and long lashes attracted the attention of men all around her, many of whom had asked for her hand over the years.  In spite of the attention of many qualified suitors, she had already given her heart to the brilliant war hero and Gnostic Knight, Bram Morrison.

Sadly, things had not worked out as she had planned.  As she sat and stared into her teacup, she wondered if she had chosen the wrong path.  She had once followed different dreams, but had long since cast them aside.

They began long ago, when she was inspired as a child.  For hours at a time, she would sit in her room and read tales of the legendary Vinetan healer and wizard, Isabella Clairvaux.  They told of an unlikely heroine who brought a prince back from the dead after Bake-kujira—the great leviathan of the sea—had swallowed him whole.  The two eventually fell in love and lived together, forever, in happiness.

The children’s tales helped her to foster an interest in the White Arts, which Rosa pursued through dutiful studies.  Wizards often required years of academia to master their art, but Rosa’s instructors claimed she had been born with unique potential.  Given enough years of scholarly research, she could one day be among the most powerful wizards of her time.

Unfortunately, after her first few years of schooling, the government shut down her classroom and placed its students on the battlefield.  It was during the War’s later years, when Angkor was desperate for additional forces to gain ground against its enemies.  Bram was a soldier at the time, climbing the ranks of the king's army, and somehow chance had brought them together.

As they fought side by side, they built trust and shared in mutual hardships.  Through struggle and conflict, a relationship blossomed.  He seemed to be the prince for whom she had long searched—and thinking her tale now over—she withdrew from her study of magic and utilized her repertoire to join him in battle.

Sadly, the partnership did not last.  In the years of peace following Angkor’s victory, Gnostics faded into obscurity while white mages returned to academia—all except for Rosa, of course.  She aimed for a quieter life, while Bram continued his work for the king.  She knew he loved and trusted her with his soul, but could not deny his heart belonged to the knighthood.  Slowly, boredom and complacency strained their bond.

During the previous night, he took off unexpectedly for another of his impromptu missions.  As with other departures, he left her nothing but a short message from the chambermaid.  She never even had the chance to say goodbye.  Of course, given the opportunity she would have gleefully obstructed his flight.  After all, the War was over and she wanted him to retire and help to raise a family.

For some reason, he always seemed against the idea, claiming he would do anything to avoid the pompousness of the Angkorian aristocracy.  Instead, he wanted to defend and protect his kingdom—which was nonsense!  Angkor no longer needed his protection.  Meanwhile, she had a responsibility to uphold her family’s name—something her father demanded she adhere to.  If the man with whom she dared to share a household were not to stand by her side, it would bring shame and embarrassment to her entire family.

Why would he not make a few sacrifices for her, after all she had given up for him?  Her studies, her dreams, her youth—it all seemed to have been in vain.  She shed a tear, wishing things would go back to the way they used to be.

These thoughts circled in her head like the chamomile leaves in her teacup.  She had awoken before sunrise, a habit picked up during the War.  She often drank a cup or two of tea to start her morning, but these days she seemed to waste her morning hours feeling sorry for herself, rarely venturing forth from the sitting room of her manor house.

Meanwhile, the chambermaid sat across from her, in an apparent state of extreme boredom.  She was a young little biddy with straight brown hair pulled tightly in a bun, and a crooked nose.  Her eyebrows were raised in sympathy, but her true feelings were revealed by the way her eyes wandered around the room while she discreetly cleaned her teeth with her tongue.  A ruder and more inconsiderate girl she had not met!

“There, there,” the young girl said.  If she was attempting to add words of comfort, it was not working.  “Soldiers aren’t bred to be considerate, you know.”

“What would you know of it?”  Rosa snapped back, annoyed at the complete and utter thoughtlessness.  “You mustn’t be more than what—thirteen?”

“Fourteen, milady,” the maid responded as she picked up the teapot from the table.  “Would you care for some more?”

Rosa let the question steep.  She needed some fresh air and an escape from her servant’s pitying eyes.  “I’m going to the market,” she announced, frustrated.

“Milady, it’s still far too early,” the maid protested.  “The shop keeps must still be in bed at this hour.  Why not send one of your attendants—”

“Do not attempt to tell me when I can leave my own home,” Rosa scolded.  “The fact is, I need some fresh air.  I’m trained in the White Arts and can take care of myself, you know.”

“As you wish, milady,” the young girl responded meekly.  Smoothing her dress, she moved about the room in a caricature of acting busy.  Rosa ignored the feeble attempt, and wondered how she ever let her father talk her into hiring such a useless girl.  She supposed it was his prerogative, after all, since he did own the manor house itself.  She and Bram merely lived there on behalf of his grace.

She took the stairs to her ornate foyer, where an assiduous butler drew an overcoat around her shoulders.  After walking outside and closing the gate behind her, she noticed the ash-colored evergreen shrubs and miserable looking flower beds that served as landscaping around her front entrance.  She shook her head in disapproval.

A month ago, the groundskeeper left to return to his family in Vineta, a country to the west.  He was one of many who made an effort to reconnect with loved ones following the War’s end.  Bram had promised to find a replacement, but like so many of his responsibilities, he neglected to follow through.  To start over now would cost at least a hundred silver coins.  Rosa wondered if the man had a care in the world outside of the knighthood.

Her downed spirits followed as she slowly and casually headed toward the district’s central courtyard.  She enjoyed the cool morning air as the sky turned orange above her.  She was just starting to relax and forget her worries, when a middle-aged man with a brown mustache and dressed in a dark suit approached her.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“You may call me Andrews, Madam,” he responded politely.

Rosa recognized the man.  “That’s right, you work for my father, don’t you?”

Andrews smiled and offered a slight tip of his head.  “I was planning to seek you at the manor, but it seems you saved me a trip.  Your father requests your presence.”

Rosa’s chest constricted, as she usually associated these discussions with bad experiences.  “I’m busy,” she lied.

“I’m certain you can make time for your errands later, Madam,” he said, hinting that she had little choice in the matter.

Rosa straightened her posture and held her head up high.  “Very well, then.  I know the way, myself—thank you very much.”  She was not about to let this servant of her father’s escort her like a child.

Andrews tipped his head again and walked away.  She did not suppose she would be able to avoid the confrontation at this point, so she changed direction and headed towards her father’s place of business, the Royal Bank of Angkor.

III. ›Morning of Diapente, Twenty-Ninth Day of Harvestmoon

Bram Morrison’s airship was swift and sturdy, but flying across the Great Ocean held many dangers to the unseasoned soldier.  Surviving the flight required an ever-vigilant eye and a ready sword, which was why he was quick to awaken and don his Gnostic armor within minutes of hearing the ship’s battle horn.

“Captain, we’ve encountered spawn,” his lieutenant explained the moment he emerged onto his ship’s deck.

The term referred to a class of creature whose recent appearance meant a new threat to mankind.  Unlike Gaia’s native plant and animal species, these vermin only appeared in recent history.  People first reported them feeding upon the dead and mortally wounded in the aftermath of battles.  They were dangerous, aggressive, and ferociously attacked anyone who approached them.  And yet, their origin was a mystery, as if they spawned from the battlefields themselves—a tale that earned them their notorious name.

“What’s the status, lieutenant?” asked Bram.

“We’ve run into a wave of chiroptera, sir—”

No sooner had the lieutenant said this when a series of dark leathery shapes approached.  They were airborne creatures that resembled bats, but their size was as large as a human torso.  Their wings seemed almost too small to lift their bloated bodies, and their sharp teeth and one-eyed faces gave them a monstrous appearance.  They lacked the grace and agility of other flying spawn, but they attacked in large numbers, making them just as dangerous.

Even so, they were no match for the skill of a Gnostic Knight.  Bram’s sword was in his hands in moments.  It was an enchanted blade, imbued by black wizards with the most powerful curses and toxins known to man.  Even a small nick against a person’s flesh would be lethal—and fortunately, it worked just as well on spawn.

He and his lieutenant ran to outflank the swarm from either side.  With a series of rapid thrusts and slashes, Bram’s sword tore through the creatures’ leathery hides, hacking off pieces of them at a time.  His own battle rage formed a synergy with the blade’s magical aura, adding to its strength.  Dismembered wings and snouts fell upon the ship’s deck as he cut through their numbers.

His lieutenant had also done a fair job of downsizing the vermin, leaving Bram to take a breather while admiring the pile of carcasses before him.  With the immediate danger out of the way, he looked down the length of his ship to see what else needed his attention.  However, it seemed his men already had things under control.

“We’ve taken care of most of them,” his lieutenant reported, “but I’m afraid the larger threat is from the spawn who fly out yonder.”

Bram looked to where his subordinate pointed.  In the distance, just at the edge of sight, flew a species of spawn known as corvusaurs.  These soaring menaces had the face of a lizard and the body of a raven.  Covered in ink black feathers, these monstrosities had oversized maws capable of swallowing a man whole.

“Finish off the chiroptera before worrying about those,” Bram responded.  “Also, make sure we have enough firebombs below deck in case others show up.  As for the corvusaurs, I want you to load the cannons with lightning rounds.  Now go!”

“Yes, sir!”  The lieutenant saluted before leaving.

Bram had a proven technique for protecting his ship from spawn.  The first of these involved a devious device known as a firebomb.  Concocted by Angkor’s black wizards, the munitions produced a furious blast of heat and flame.  Since they damaged everything within a ten-span range, miniature catapults along the sides of the deck launched them far enough away to avoid damage to the ship.  Several blasts were enough to cull most spawn colonies, except for the larger beasts.

That was where the lightning rounds came into play.  Because corvusaurs were so massive and agile, the firebombs were insufficient.  Other maneuvers such as cannons or longbows lacked the necessary strength or velocity.  So instead, Bram invented an approach that defeated their aerial advantage.

Once again, he utilized Angkor’s black wizards to store an electrical charge inside cannon munitions.  Like discharging a massive capacitor, it released its energy in a powerful storm of sparks.  Combined with the static accumulated on the tufts of a corvusaur’s features, it resulted in a burst of electricity that traveled in between the beasts in bright white arcs.  Most tended to be killed on impact, while the survivors usually fled.  Bram intended to employ this technique, but so far the spawn flew at too great a distance.

His lieutenant returned from his tasks below deck.  He saluted his superior. “Sir, I’ve completed your orders.” 

Bram nodded.  “The corvusaurs have not taken an attack pattern.  We may yet avoid a conflict.”

The man agreed, but seemed to have more to say.  Although Gnostics typically flaunted their threatening reputations, many held a more subdued relationship with their own crew.  Some even went as far as to offer counsel during times of grief.  Bram was such a knight.

“You may speak your mind, soldier.”

The lieutenant stepped forward.  “It’s about the spawn, sir.  How much longer must we fight these creatures?  It seems like every week we gather cleansing parties from all our major cities, and send them out to the countryside to decimate their numbers.  And yet, sightings have only managed to increase.”  He paused before adding, “I’m not the only one who feels this way—the others share my concern.  Surely you must know how the king intends to address this curse.”

Bram had pondered it himself.  Early on, spawn avoided the cities and larger settlements, preying instead at the agrarian outskirts.  Farmers would find half-eaten remains of livestock in their fields, and travelers would report seeing bodies of lone tradesman who errantly ventured into the backwoods unarmed.  Over time, however, the spawn became increasingly aggressive.  In an attempt to fight the invasion, cities would send out warriors capable of killing hundreds at a time.  But in spite of their efforts, spawn sightings grew each month.

“It’s true,” he responded.  “The menace is larger than ever before, but I’m certain the king’s advisors are looking into it.  My own opinion is that blood from the battlefields has drawn these creatures out from their underground lairs, but the infestation is only temporary.  Once they’ve exhausted their food source, they’ll return to—.”

“Sir!”  The interruption came from a soldier at Bram’s rear, his navigations officer.  He spun around quickly, causing the man to flinch.  Such was commonplace in the presence of a Gnostic Knight.  Part of it was due to their attire, which included a fearsome mask with skull and horns that was carefully designed to invoke fear and intimidation.  Even a knight’s own men—veterans and brothers of many battles—shrank before its terrifying aura.  Bram waited for the officer to regain his composure.

“We’ll soon reach our destination, sir, but we can’t land with the corvusaurs in the distance.  If they attack during our descent we’ll be at a significant disadvantage.”

The lieutenant took his cue and withdrew to make landing preparations.  Bram addressed his navigations officer.  “What do you recommend?”

“We should either draw them into battle, or find a way to outmaneuver them.”

“We can’t shake them,” Bram responded.  “The ship stinks of death, and corvusaurs have a keen sense of smell.”  He shook his head.  “We’ll have to do what we can to lure them within attack range.  Where are the other men?”

“In the holds, sir, searching for munitions.  There’s not much left.”

Bram sighed quietly.  He did not want his subordinate to overhear and mistake it for doubt.  In order to lead, he had to set an example to embolden his men.  “Collect what you can and make sure the cannons are loaded.”

“Yes, sir!”  The officer saluted and went below deck.

Bram wished he still had Rosa on board.  Her magic would have certainly come in useful.  Her quarters were still below deck, untouched since she last fought at his side during the War.  Even in the midst of conflict, he could hear her charming voice as he imagined feeling her soft, beautiful skin.  During those cold nights on the battlefields, far from Angkor’s safety, he would caress her lovingly.  She would move in close enough for him to smell her peppermint-scented breath, as he ran his fingers through her long, golden curls.

Despite his love for her, the knighthood demanded he reserve all displays of affection to more private settings.  Rosa seemed to understand little of his obligations, and since the onset of peace, became even more outspoken of her distaste of the Gnostic organization.  He used to count on her to have his back, but now she insisted on living the life her father dictated.  She even had the gall to tell him that she would no longer be the girl who so foolishly ran away from home to fight with her lover.  Did she always consider their love so tawdry?  Selfish woman!

Looking across the deck, he saw his men had started to clear the carcasses of chiroptera by throwing them off the side of the ship to the ocean below.  The creatures carried an unmistakably rancid smell.  He commanded them to stop.  He had an idea.

IV. Morning of Diapente, Twenty-Ninth Day of Harvestmoon

Angkor’s capital was known to many as the fortress city.  Located adjacent to the city of Niedam, it was designed from the onset for impregnability.  It had two main districts, one inside the other.  The first—called the Outer Sanctum—was a residential district that contained the sumptuously designed dwellings of the aristocracy.  Meanwhile, the Inner Sanctum served as the city’s civic framework, including the king’s palace.  For almost a century, it safeguarded the monarchial government in what many considered the most defensible structure on the planet.

In order to reach the Royal Bank of Angkor, Rosa had to cross into the Inner Sanctum, which involved passing through one of several security stations located around the district’s perimeter.  Just like any other visitor requesting access, she had to provide credentials in the form of a royal seal.  It was nothing more than a small silver medallion stamped with a royal insignia.  To prevent theft, the seals were unique to each individual, and magically imbued to tarnish if ever passed onto another person.  They were also protected against forgery, since original seals would turn blue if placed near the indicator devices located at each checkpoint.  She kept hers on hand at all times, which allowed her free access in between districts.

While King Richard tended to keep an ample security force around him at all times, the checkpoints served as an additional level that addressed crime within the Inner Sanctum.  In particular, Angkor had grown powerful enough to attract assassins.  They were often hired by those who served to profit from a change in the balance of power.  The checkpoints restricted access to a known list of people, which not only protected the king, but also his court and any visiting dignitaries.

When Rosa approached the golden gates of the Royal Bank, she was ushered inside by one of the guards.  They were already expecting her and—like it or not—they provided an escort to guide her to her father’s office.

An armed guardsman led her to a wide open atrium on the building’s top floor.  The room had windows spaced along the entire perimeter, which let in plenty of light.  Arched ceilings high above were adorned with beautiful trim made of carved ironwood.  The floor was a series of marble tiles arranged in alternating patterns of white and blue.  Her father sat behind a desk in the far corner of the room, counting a stack of gold coins.

Tom Reynolds had white hair and bushy eyebrows, even though he was still a middle-aged man.  He wore a sapphire-blue coat with white hose, which curiously matched the room’s interior.  He held up an index finger to indicate that he acknowledged her presence, and that she should wait for him to finish before speaking.

After a minute of awkward silence, he greeted his daughter.  “Hello, Rosa.  Thank you for answering my summons.”

“Hello, Father,” she responded, feeling like the same youth who faced her father when she was fifteen years younger.  She still had trouble meeting his gaze when he spoke to her.

“It’s been a few months since last we spoke,” he said, in an uncomfortably cheerful tone.  “I’d hoped you would visit more often.”

“I suppose I didn’t want to disturb your coin counting,” she returned in a flat voice.

Tom smiled.  He stood up from his chair and slowly made his way to her side.  She cringed as he took her hands in a loving gesture.  Meanwhile, her eyes wandered to the armed escort who had never left her side.  He stood at attention, as if he were a fixture in the room.

“What’s wrong?” her father asked with a smirk.  “Do you think I sit here all day long and count money?”

Rosa looked towards the floor, embarrassed.  She had not meant to start the conversation with an insult.  It just kind of slipped out.

“Let me explain something to you, since you ought to be old enough to understand,” he said.  “My job is to deal in capital.  The Royal Bank funds the king’s expenses, and the amount of money that flows through this establishment is proportional to the prosperity of the nation itself.  Counting the money is a necessary part of the accounting, and I trust no one else with the responsibility.  Besides—it’s just a few hours each morning, and then I’m off to better things.  You see?  Perhaps I’m not the old stiff you take me for.”

Rosa let out a giggle at her father’s self-deprecation.  He had that way about him.  That’s how it always started.

“There—that’s better,” he said.  “Now, how about you tell me what you’re up to this early in the morning.”

She tried to sound more cheerful.  “I was just out for a stroll.”

“I had a chat with Andrews a few moments ago.  He said you had big plans this morning.”

She remembered the lie she told her father’s servant, about being too busy to see him.  She knew he was testing her.  “That’s right,” she said.  “Later on, of course.”

“I see.”  Tom’s blue eyes were like a hawk’s.  He had her in his sights.  “So you have big plans later, but you went out for a stroll before the break of dawn?”

She scoffed.  “I’m a big girl, Father.  I can leave the manor whenever I please.”

“Of course you can,” he said, innocently.  “Hmm … I bet I know what has you so upset.”

Rosa’s mood darkened.

“Could it be that Mister Morrison left last night without telling you?  Are you feeling—perhaps—spurned by this?”

Her eyes narrowed.  How did he know—the maid?

“Don’t be upset with me, my dear,” he told her.  “I have my sources, and I have every right to keep an eye on my daughter.”

“No you don’t,” she shot back.  “It’s my privacy.”

“You’re living in my house,” he told her.

“I’m twenty-five years old.  I don’t need you sending your servants to escort me here every time you think I need to be coddled!”

“Calm down, that’s not why I summoned you,” he explained.  She scowled and stared back at him.  “I want nothing more than to offer a suggestion.”

A strange tingling crept up her spine.  “I’m listening …”

“It’s about Mister Morrison—”

Rosa sighed.  “I know you don’t like him—”

“That’s right,” he said to cut her off.  “I don’t like the way he treats you, and I think you deserve better.”

“We’re working things out—”

“That’s not good enough.”

“What do you want me to do?  Kick him out?”

Now it was Tom’s turn to sigh.  “Rosa, honey, I want you to stop being petulant and listen to me for a moment.  All I want is for you to have a future—and I don’t believe Mister Morrison can provide one for you.  So I have someone else in mind.”

Rosa was aghast, and her eyes went wide.  “Another man—?”

“Yes,” Tom said forcefully.  “He’s handsome and mature, strong and confident, and in good favor with the king.  In fact, he’s not all that different from Mister Morrison—except for the dispassionate attitude and cold demeanor, of course.”

“This is sick!” she yelled back at him, only to once again be reminded of the presence of the armed guard standing next to her.  She recoiled after noticing him.

“I’ll tell you what’s sick,” Tom said.  “Bedding with a man out of wedlock who has no desire to raise a child.  You’ll listen to me this time, Rosa, because you know I’m right about that.”

She frowned, but could not deny it.  “Bram’s a national hero.  He’s risked his life for us to attain peace.”  He was also the fairytale prince whom she had fallen in love—but this was not the time for naïve fantasies, so she pushed the thought aside.

“I have deep respect for our veterans,” said Tom, “but I want you to consider that Bram is a soldier, and that he has no room for you in his life.  Whatever you choose to sacrifice for him, you should expect to get nothing in return.”

The truth hit home, and it brought a tear to her eye.  She tried to wipe it away before he saw it—but it was too late.

“Come now,” he said, “I’m not here to punish you for falling in love with the wrong man.  I just want what’s best for you—which is why I want you to consider the man I have in mind.”

She continued to wipe the wetness from the creases around her eyes.  “Who is he, then?”

“I believe you’ve already met,” her father said.  “He’s Angkor’s Grand Craftsman.”

“You mean Cedric Curtis?”

“That’s right.  In fact, he’ll be expecting you later this morning.”

Rosa hated that her father had set up a date without her consent, but in light of everything, perhaps it was not such a bad idea.  She had known Cedric for a couple of years now, and he was as good a suitor as any man.  If nothing else, perhaps it would get her father to leave her alone.

Tom seemed to sense a change of heart, and he smiled.  “See … I only want what’s best for you.  Now, come here and give me a hug.”

Rosa put her arms around his shoulders hesitantly.  It still did not feel right, but she was nevertheless committed.  Her father had that way with her.  “Thank you, Father,” she said to be conciliatory.

“Of course,” he said, while giving her a pat on a back.  “Of course ….”

V. Morning of Diapente, Twenty-Ninth Day of Harvestmoon

Bram grew anxious.  The corvusaurs still followed his flight path, hovering like phantoms in the distance.  Very shortly, his ship would need to descend to its destination, but first he had to eliminate the threat.  Unfortunately, he would be forced to perform a series of maneuvers to lure the corvusaurs closer.  His only hope was with the corpses of chiroptera that lay in piles across his ship.  If he could get close enough to the feathered lizards, perhaps they would move in for a meal, and give him range to attack.

If only he had some wizards on board, it would be a lot easier.  His men were soldiers, and none had the skills or training required.  Many airships mandated wizards, but the Heron had been outfitted with newer technology and no longer required magic to maintain operation.  If he had been given notice and time to prepare, he would have assembled an appropriate crew—but it seemed the damned bureaucrats in the capital had thrown the mission together at the last moment.  They probably attained the king’s seal without even a single review from the military strategists!  He cursed under his breath.

“I believe I might be of assistance,” came a voice from behind him.

He turned to meet the steadfast gaze of Virgil Garvey, whom he had not seen since their awkward encounter the previous night.  Having no time for games of seniority, he said something he hoped would encourage the chancellor to leave the deck. 

“It’d be best if you returned to your cabin, Mister Garvey.  We may be forced to perform some maneuvers to deal with the spawn in the distance, and you won’t want to be here when the assault happens.”

“I’m aware of the problem,” the chancellor responded.  “I’ll have you know that I’ve trained in the Black Arts, and I’ve prepared something that I think will address our problem.”

From inside his robes he produced a case bound by a delicate chain-linked cord.  Bram could tell from the ‘wind’ rune emblazoned on the front that inside was a scroll capable of casting a magic spell.  Much to Bram’s chagrin, the chancellor could not help himself from uttering another insult.  “We’ll have a better chance by making use of my skills than for you to resort to some foolhardy maneuvering.”

Bram’s eyes narrowed, but he maintained his composure.  “Very well, Mister Garvey, but I expect you to follow my plan.”  He waited for Virgil to nod, but only received an impatient stare.  Bram continued, “We’ll use your wind magic to blow the scent from the chiroptera carcasses in the direction of the corvusaurs.  My crew shall await below deck, while you go starboard and cast the scroll in the corvusaurs’ direction.  When they take the bait, you’ll end the spell and my men will fire lightning rounds from the cannons.  Hopefully, if we destroy enough of them, the rest will flee.  Are you fit for this task?”

“Very well,” Virgil responded.  “Let’s get on with it—shall we?”

Bram did not intend to yield to the chancellor’s disrespectful retorts.  He ordered his men below deck, but he remained in order to react first to the skirmish.  He secured himself with rope to the ship’s mast, since any loose material would be blown overboard from the spell.

After double-checking his harness, he handed the scroll to Virgil, who cradled it tenderly.  It surprised him to learn that a mere chancellor had training in magic.  Not many bureaucrats bothered to learn these skills, and he knew of none who put forth the effort to master anything of value.  He was therefore skeptical that Virgil was as proficient as he boasted.

Although Bram never had the time to train in magic, he learned plenty of its inner workings from Rosa.  Scrolls in particular were nothing more than instructions for a spell on paper.  They could be committed to memory by learning the inflection and pronunciation of the runes—but the paper would disintegrate in the reader’s hands as soon as the spell was cast.  Wizards employed this precaution to prevent their wares from being used too freely.

Rosa taught him many things.  Her peers held her skills in high regards, and some even claimed she would be among the greatest white wizards in her time.  Of course, once she met Bram, she put her training aside to fight in the War.  Because of her, he survived many near-fatal blows.  They were a team, and as a result their love grew stronger.  It was one reason why they remained together, even in spite of changes brought on by peace.

Bram cleared his thoughts as Virgil began the incantation.  At once, the wind picked up around him, bringing a momentary relief from the stench.  It did not take long for the spawn carcasses to start sliding across the deck.  Dust and dried blood mixed with the remains, forming a raging funnel.  The tempest pulled at Bram as well—and had it not been for the restraints, he would have been dragged along with it.  Virgil’s command of the spell was masterful.  He directed the maelstrom of dust, dirt, and gore outward toward the corvusaurs. 

As Bram hoped, the spawn broke from their formation to feed.  When they were in range, the chancellor ended the spell.  Bram quickly removed his harness, and saw that his men were already in full sprint toward the cannons.  Sharp shards of lightning cascaded toward the swarm.  A fury of sparks and thunder ignited a few of the birds in flame, leaving masses of charred feathers gliding in midair as smoldering bodies crashed into the sea.  Many of the others retreated, but a few evaded the magical storm and lunged toward the ship.

Bram unsheathed his enchanted sword and took a defensive position.  One of the giant birds flew directly overhead, its sights set on him.  He carefully watched its wing tips, knowing they were capable of ejecting poisonous darts filled with paralyzing toxins that would leave his body vulnerable to attack.  Without healers on board, he could not afford to be hit.

Instead, the beast tried landing on the deck.  Before it touched down, he dashed quickly underneath it, using his armor’s enchantments to grant him additional dexterity.  The creature’s size limited its maneuverability, and landing was a fatal mistake.  Bram drove his poisonous blade into its backside.  The weapon’s dark magic pierced through, delivering concentrated venom into the creature’s bloodstream.  Thrashing in pain, the corvusaur thrust itself back into clear air, breaking one of the ship’s masts in the process. 

Bram did not have time to mourn the damages.  He recovered, only to find the beast once more above him.  Though it was in its death throes, it readied its poisonous darts, determined to take out its target.  Bram was already at the aft of the ship, with nowhere to run.  He braced himself—hoping his armor was strong enough to withstand the attack—when he heard a thunderous roar.  An explosion erupted overhead, and the bird was engulfed in flames.

He sprinted to the bridge.  Like any seafaring vessel, the Heron had a wheel installed for manual steering.  Once he gave it a strong turn, the Heron veered away from the corvusaur’s burning path of destruction.  The smoldering body slowly lost altitude, shrieking as it fell.

He searched for the person who launched what he assumed to be a firebomb.  Such a careless act put the entire crew’s lives at risk, and he intended to discipline the man severely.  Rather than finding one of his own soldiers, however, he met the contemptuous gaze of his bureaucratic passenger.

“Virgil, you fool—that was magic!  Do you have any idea what might’ve happened if you misfired, or caused the spawn to hit the ship?  Its weight would have sent us all crashing to the ocean!”

“You dare to judge my sensibilities, Captain?” he returned, contentiously.  “I did nothing that would have jeopardized this ship, and I might have even saved your life.  That corvusaur would not have hesitated to skewer your flesh with darts, and proceed to rip the limbs off your paralyzed body.”

“Best not judge me, either, Mister Garvey.  My enchanted armor is not easy to penetrate, and I’d have gladly taken the risk to maintain our safety.  Don’t forget we’re airborne—your deed could have cost us our lives!”

Virgil’s eyes flared.  “It was my call—not yours—and the mission’s too important to argue over a bruised ego.  I suggest you prepare to land so that we can procure our assignment.”

“I haven’t forgotten—the sunstone that must be obtained at ‘any cost’.”  Bram approached the chancellor’s face.  “Apparently, that includes the lives of my crew!”

Virgil’s voice dropped to a hiss.  “What kind of a Gnostic are you, valuing these grunts over your mission?  They’re expendable, Mister Morrison,” he bared his teeth, “as are you!”

It took great restraint, but Bram repressed his anger.  Even so, he shook visibly.  “My men and this ship are among the king’s greatest assets, and it’s my duty to protect them.  Your mandate may come directly from His Majesty, but that does not give you permission to be reckless.  From now on, you will recognize my rank and follow my command!”

Bram had not noticed, but his fist was clenched tightly around Virgil’s arm.  He realized it suddenly, and so did the chancellor.

“So be it,” Virgil replied, tersely.  Wrenching his arm free, he returned to his cabin.

After the explosion, the remaining corvusaurs dispersed, leaving the crew to return to clearing the deck of blood and carcasses.  Eventually, the ship reached Minoa and began its descent.  Bram returned to his cabin to clean up and ready himself for the mission—but his mood was dark and clouded.

šVI. Morning of Diapente, Twenty-Ninth Day of Harvestmoon

Rosa sat opposite from Cedric Curtis in a lovely looking chamber known as the Garnet Room, named for its lavish color scheme.  Years ago, he hired the kingdom’s most prestigious decorators to furnish his manor.  They started by placing elaborate brass lighting fixtures in strategic locations to cast the perfect hue of warmth upon the carmine décor.  Kitezhian rugs covered dark mahogany floors, and Vinetan oil paintings of beautiful landscapes hung atop hand-stenciled wallpaper.

They sat at a cherry tea table in ornate chairs with plush cushions and armrests carved in the shapes of autumn leaves.  He smoked an ironwood pipe, saying nothing.  His face looked calm and relaxed.  For several minutes, no one spoke.  Rosa hoped her host would not find it impolite.

“Your home is … lovely,” she said to quash the silence.

“Thank you, my dear,” he responded before returning to his pipe-smoking equanimity. 

She found herself staring, amazed that he sat so calmly, while deep inside she felt so anxious.  The awkward setup was beyond convention, and she still fumed over her father’s meddling.

Even so, she had to admit that Cedric was a handsome man.  He had a rugged frame, though not as broad chested as Bram.  A dark, close-cropped beard covered most of the lines of maturity around his face.  He was twelve years her elder, which put him close to his middle years—but Rosa found that attractive.  Of course, his most striking feature was his bright hazel eyes, which carried an air of dignity and intelligence.

Unlike others in his trade, he was well groomed and sophisticated.  He was Angkor’s Grand Craftsman, a title that granted him great wealth.  He had no need to frequent the machine shops—where soot, steam, and grease would quickly dishevel a person.  His place was in the office, crunching numbers and designing schematics.

Of course, his life had not always been so easy.  Long ago, he grew up as the son of a deep-sea fishing captain.  His father had never been a wealthy man, but he nurtured his son’s skills at tinkering, and helped him to excel in the fields of ship maintenance and repair.  Many shipwrights sought his skills, and he became well known for solving tough problems.

His opportunity came when a high-ranking official took note of his handiwork and offered him a position on a top-secret project.  The proposal aimed to combine the power of magic with ordinary nautical mechanics to create ships capable of air flight.  In the very early stages, the contraptions proved dangerous and unreliable.  In order to save the failing project, the military sought the expertise of Angkor’s top artisans.  Cedric spent countless hours and sleepless nights devising solutions.  At last, he struck innovation and his invention changed air flight forever.

Soon after it proved viable, the king appointed him to a newly created office at the top of his administration—and his designs spread throughout the world.  Schools taught his principles, and others improved upon his initial framework.  Cedric deserved the recognition, but always remained modest.  Not only had his efforts made him famous, but his humility also gained him the respect of his peers.

Following his newly acquired wealth and prestige, he set his goals toward marriage.  Many women vied for his affection, but none managed to steer him from his work.  After years of partial romances and curt infatuations, he ended his exploits.  Instead, he chose to live alone, as mysterious as he was wealthy.

Things remained that way until the eve of the Unification Day centennial, an event that commemorated the union of Angkor’s progenitors, Angaea and Sakor.  On the one hundredth anniversary, the king announced a great celebration with fireworks, magic, and dancing.  Everyone looked forward to it, and Bram promised to make it a special night for Rosa.

Unfortunately, a few days before the event, he left the country for his first mission since the War’s end.  It was a crushing disappointment.  She understood the nature of his work and knew the country’s security depended on his success, but she could not let go of the promise he made to her.  She put weeks of effort into planning her attire, and even ordered a coach to pick them up, but Bram disappeared without even a forewarning.  It felt like a betrayal.

She had half a mind to stay at home, but forced herself to go at the last moment.  She offered pleasantries to those around her to save face, but feelings of loneliness and shame soon brought tears to her eyes.  She ducked into a lonely corner to pull herself together, when a man approached.  He must have followed her after taking note of a woman in distress. 

She recognized him as Angkor’s Grand Craftsman, but never expected to be comforted by his kind words and sensitivities.  As she stared into his compassionate eyes, she felt a welcome reprieve from her grief.  They became good friends—and remained that way until recently—when her father thought to intervene by offering Cedric as a potential suitor.

Bringing herself back to the present, she realized she had not spoken for quite some time.  She did not yet want to expose her feelings, but she yearned to break the awkward silence.  “It’s nice to have the chance to see you again, Mister Curtis ….”

She stopped in mid-breath, feeling stupid for referring to him in such a formal way.  Some date it was turning out to be.  Despite the awkwardness, he merely sat back and patiently waited for her to continue.

She swallowed.  “Your home is quite beautiful.  This is my first time seeing it from the inside.”  It was also the second time she mentioned his home.  Again she paused—holding her breath—trying to push away the feelings that made her so flustered.  “So—what would you like to talk about?”

She cringed at her fumbling request.  It was all she thought to say on a moment’s notice, but it was not supposed to sound so awful.

Even so, he seemed to understand, and did not judge her.  She felt transparent in front of his experienced eyes, wondering what he must be thinking.  She thought about explaining herself further, but his next action halted her words.  He emptied the contents of his pipe in a small glass tray and stood up.  She watched as he walked over to her chair and offered his hand.

“I’d like to show you something,” he said.  “Would you care to follow me?”

Relieved at the break in the monotony, she reached forward to accept his offer.  She let out a pent up breath, hoping she was not blushing.

He led her through a long hallway, following pools of light that poured from ornate brass chandeliers.  At the end was a room filled with long tables set in the shape of a rectangle.  He had decorated each of them with scaled-down replicas of mountains, rivers, and rock formations.  As Rosa stepped closer, she noticed hundreds of miniature soldiers, all set in a rendition that she recognized as Dobb’s Plain, the battle that ended the War.

“It’s incredible,” she breathed, unable to find the right words to describe his marvelous attention to detail.

Cedric stepped closer and put his arm around her shoulders.  Then, he pointed to a section of the model.  “That’s the outcropping where General Friedreich Rommel of Kitezh fell to the Angkorian defense.  Some might argue that Rommel’s fall signaled the end of the War.”  He pointed to another small section to the right.  “This field is where the Kenju masters of Koba met their match against the Angkorian Templars—and here’s where the Templar Grandmaster lost his life.”

Rosa followed where he pointed and listened intently.  She loved history, especially events in which she had a personal involvement.  She fought along with Bram in the final battle—but seeing the whole field at once, high above and locked in battle, blessed her with an incredible new perspective.

“Would you care for anything to drink?  Some tea, perhaps?” he offered.

“No, thank you—I just want to admire things here for a little while longer.”

“Do you expect Bram to return later today?”

The question took her by surprise.  For all she knew, his mission would end quickly, and he would return home at any moment and expect to find her.  Of course, that sounded preposterous.  Every other time, he remained absent for days.  He never told her where he went, or what he did.  With no war to fight, she wondered what a knight would even do these days.

“You know,” Cedric mused while walking back to the model and picking up a figurine dressed in white.  “They say that white wizards played a very important role in the War.  Not just because of their healing and protective powers, but also because of the bonds they made with other soldiers.  They say that when a white wizard casts a spell out of love, the magic has a greater effect.  When this is done enough times, a bond forms between the wizard and her ward.  They begin to sense one another, even when they’re apart.”

“I’m not sure there’s much study to support that theory,” Rosa said absently, though the inkling of a long forgotten memory began to form in her head.

“Is that true?” he asked, placing the white robed figurine back on the table.  “Does Bram feel that way about you?  I wonder ….”

She wondered what he was getting at, and looked to where he had placed the figurine.  It was her, she realized.  Cedric had modeled both her and Bram in the battle, and she remembered it clearly—the pain she felt when the Kitezhian bowman shot an arrow through his side—the blood that spilled from his Gnostic armor—it felt as if the wound came from her own heart.

She remembered running to him and catching him in her arms as she cast the defensive spell to stop the other arrows.  She had drawn from the power of her own soul to stop the bleeding.  The arrow pierced his lung, and his breath came in short rasps.  He coughed, and blood spilled from his lips.  A glassy veneer coat covered his eyes as death passed over him.  She summoned her strength, her courage, and her determination.  She spoke the words of magic, and they flowed from her lips as blood flowed from his.

The last thing she remembered was the joy and relief as color returned to his face—and at that moment a sudden wave of guilt washed over her.  She remembered why she had come, and how her father had talked her into something she would have never done on her own.  She opened her mouth to say something, but only tears came out.  She had no idea what to say, except for a few words.  “I … I’m sorry Cedric, I have to go.”

She felt shame and embarrassment—but when she looked into his eyes, all she saw was kindness.

“It’s all right,” he replied with a warm smile.  “You belong to him.”

He understood—thank the Goddess, he understood!  He took her gently in his arms and hugged her.  She hugged him back.  Her father no longer had a hold over her.  “I do,” she said, and ran out of the room.

š VII ›

Afternoon of Diapente, Twenty-Ninth Day of Harvestmoon

Bram Morrison entered the village of Minoa accompanied by his men and the king’s chancellor.  Each donned his fullest regalia, their bright steel gleaming under a repressive sun.  It was in sharp contrast to the filthy rags adorning the inhabitants, who watched them pass with hardened eyes.  Off to the side, an old woman stared at Bram with blank white orbs—perhaps a pair of glass prosthetics.  An ominous feeling overcame him, and he found himself turning his head to avoid her gaze.

He was angered by his lack of self-control.  A Gnostic would never recoil from a common old hag.  These villagers meant nothing to him, nor should he feel guilt or displeasure in their misfortunes.  He followed the will of the king, and it was absolute!

Repeating this creed to himself often allayed wandering doubts, but this time it felt odd and unsettling.  These people were not his enemy, but rather a sordid assortment of impoverished villagers.  They were pitiful to look at, and bereft of everything except their sacred sunstone—the artifact his king planned to obtain at all cost.

“Keep your eyes straight,” Virgil hissed at his side.

So he had noticed, too.  Bram felt humiliated at being chastened by the odious chancellor, but most of his discomfort came from something else.  His assignment was unlike any other before it.  At least when the nations of Koba and Kitezh threatened his homeland, Bram had every reason to hate them for it.  They were responsible for the deaths of his family, who burned in the flames of an enemy assault.  His village had been torched during the War, and his desire for vengeance made it easier to do the same to others.  His wrath was justice for the ones he had loved and lost.

Nevertheless, in the pitiable village of Minoa lived the washed-up survivors from burgs and settlements that he himself had razed.  They were veterans of the wrong side of history, who left the ashes of their fallen homeland with nowhere else to turn, and no other country to call their own. 

They were widows and orphans, who boarded ships bound for the Southern Continent, in the hopes of finding solace.  Minoa welcomed thousands of these immigrants, offering them temporary lodgings.  The final battle of Dobb’s Plain was especially brutal.  Armies of Kitezhian soldiers and Koban warriors fought and lost their lives to Angkorian steel.

Bram also played a part in the final battle, though he nearly lost his life defending an Angkorian general who was ambushed due to faulty intelligence.  He led the reinforcements, but was cornered when the enemy surprised him with a new wave of archers.  Their arrows, guided by black magic, pierced the joints in between his plates of armor.  If Rosa had not been there to heal his wounds, he would have surely perished.

In his mind’s eye, Rosa appeared by his side, dressed in the white wizard’s attire she had worn during the War.  Her white vest, leggings, and hard leather moccasins were well-suited for traversing hard terrain.  However, the vision faded quickly as he thought about having left her a thousand leagues away, without as much as a goodbye.  His life as a Gnostic must have been hard on her, but she rarely complained.  If only he knew of a way to make it up to her.

His fond memories of the woman he loved dissolved as his objective grew closer.  The Great Temple of Minoa appeared in the distance, incongruent with the rest of the surroundings.  Unlike the other poorly constructed makeshift shacks, it stood as the one monument in the village that emanated grace and dignity.

It had in fact been built hundreds of years earlier by the old Minoan society—perhaps the most ancient civilization in recorded history.  The ramshackle village had merely been built around it.  The ancient Minoans had once blanketed the globe, but over time their numbers dwindled as people abandoned the Gaian faith.  The modern day village was now the only remaining mecca for the Gaian priesthood to practice their religion.

When the group finally arrived at the temple gates, a male in black wizard’s robes and a female in white greeted them at the door.

“Greetings, gentle Minoans,” Bram began, projecting his voice in an official proclamation.  “We are representatives from Angkor, where His Royal Majesty, the gracious King Richard Cromwell, formally requests an audience between Chancellor Virgil Garvey and his Excellency, the Elder of Minoa.”

The female wizard gave them an apologetic look.  “It’s a pity you’ve travelled so far, great warriors,” she chimed, “but the Elder has recently begun the Por Qhai, our annual tradition requiring a moon cycle of fasting and meditation.”

The male wizard continued in a somewhat musical voice.  “We sadly inform you that it’s impossible to interrupt the event once it’s started.  We hope that you honor our traditions and come back at a time when our doors are open again to the public.”

This was not sad news for Bram.  He had already anticipated the Por Qhai, and it served to keep the temple guards participating in the rituals, as opposed to being active at their posts.  This way, the invasion would meet with less resistance.  Having confirmed the holiday, he nodded to his men.  A few of them stepped forward with strong black cords, which they used to bind the wizards’ hands, mouth, and feet.

“Do not resist,” Virgil told them.  “I’ve cast an anti-magic field around you, which will prevent you from casting spells.  Cooperate, and I’ll not be forced to harm you.”  The chancellor’s magic stripped them of their only defense, rendering them helpless against Bram’s soldiers.

Virgil whispered some words while waving his hand in a small arc. The temple’s gate swung inward at his command.  His speed at spell casting was impressive.  Few wizards had enough experience to be so parsimonious in their gestures.  Novice users would often struggle with the words and gestures—sometimes choosing to cast their spells slowly for correctness, rather than be forced to start over.  Nevertheless, Virgil uttered the words quietly under his breath, as effortless as whistling a tune.

Bram allowed the chancellor to enter first to incapacitate the priests inside.  Once again, his inaudible whisper and casual wave was enough to put the room into a stupor.  As Bram entered, he saw half a dozen men and women sink slowly to the ground.  Their eyes remained open, but the spell left their minds deeply entranced.

Perhaps the king had been wise in sending Virgil on the mission.  Without him, Bram’s men would have been ill-equipped to handle so many wizards at once.  With the path cleared, they led the first two priests inside, where they joined their brethren in enchanted sleep.

When his eyes adjusted, Bram found the interior to be larger than he had imagined.  Drawing his blade, he walked along the marble floor past a series of immensely tall stone columns.  Sunlight shined through stained glass windows high above, and cast a multicolored pattern upon a clean white carpet that ran the length from the entrance all the way to the back of the room.  The exquisitely architected ceiling reminded him of the cathedral in Angkor, but even more ornate—making him feel as though he should kneel in reverence.  His soldiers marched by his side, ready to follow him into battle, but Virgil led the way, seemingly unimpressed by the majestic edifice.

Near the back of the temple, they found a thick iron door with carvings that Bram recognized as Ancient Minoan script.  The door would lead into the main meditation chamber where the Minoan priests—as well as the sunstone—would be waiting.

Any historian would have leapt at the opportunity to stand in Bram’s place and catalogue the temple’s contents, but for centuries, the priests restricted access to all except their own order.  It was believed that untold wisdom from the Ancient Minoan culture existed within.  It was in temples such as these that the Gaian priests worshipped the deified spirit of the planet, also known as Gaia.  But now, this temple was all that remained.

Edging toward the doorway, Bram looked curiously at the ancient symbols, wondering what they might mean.

“Stand back!” Virgil snapped.  “This door may very well be defended by invisible magic.  These people do not like being disturbed.  I have what I need to dispel the wards, but it’ll take some time to prepare.”

Bram nodded curtly and watched as the chancellor drew a circle of magic on the floor.  Such tools were only necessary for spells of considerable power.  He and his soldiers took a few steps back, wary of standing too close.  The chancellor removed several components from his coat pockets.  These included powders and dried herbs, a gemstone, and some unidentifiable objects—perhaps talismans carved from dark wood or stone.  He placed them in specific segments of the circle before entering it himself and sitting in its center.

The words were spoken softly with long chains of syllables that sounded like serpentine poetry.  He took a handful of a powdery substance and let it slide through his open fingers along the path of the circle.  The dusty material hit the floor and emitted an incandescent glow that encased the chancellor in a cylinder of purple light.  The words of magic echoed in Bram’s ear, unendingly reflecting off the walls of the temple’s enormous nave, as if refusing to absorb the sound.  He hoped no one outside would hear, or worse—that it would alert anyone inside to their presence.

The light around Virgil vanished as soon as his incantation stopped.  The door, however, remained closed.

“We can now take the worshippers by surprise,” he explained to Bram, as if reading his thoughts.  “I’ve placed an enchantment on the room that prevents anyone inside from casting magic.  I expect your soldiers to follow my lead, and overpower them if they resist in any way.”

“My men can handle it,” he responded.  He gestured for his men to form at his flank.  Virgil then used his powers to open the iron door.  The men waited, weapons in position.  As the door opened, shocked outcries rushed out.

“What’s the meaning of this?” a woman shouted.

“Who dares to disturb the Por Qhai?” a man yelled.

Bram and his men rushed inside.  To his amazement, no one resisted.  Right away, the priests seemed to realize that their powers had been subdued, making it easy for the soldiers to corral them into the room’s corner.

The meditation chamber had a curious design.  Every surface—from the walls and pillars to the ceiling and floor—was made from mirrored glass.  Without concentrating, it became difficult tell a person from their reflection.  Letting the eyes wander resulted in a dizzying effect.

“What do you want?” an older man asked of Bram.

“Silence!” Virgil demanded, shoving his way past.  “We’re here for the sunstone.  Hand it over, or blood shall be spilt.”

Bram raised a gauntleted hand that managed to halt the chancellor’s advance.  “My men have control of the situation.  We can obtain the artifact.”

“The sunstone is not within these chambers,” a tall man from the group of hostages claimed.

“Where is it?” Bram demanded.

“We keep it in a protective alcove elsewhere in the temple.  I’ll take you to it.”

“He lies,” Virgil warned.  “He knows he’s powerless to stand against us from inside this room, so he wishes to lure you out.  If you kill him, it will serve as an example to the others, and they’ll be more forthcoming.”

The hostages shrank back at Virgil’s threat, but the tall man only stared back at him.

“I’m losing patience.  Bram, order your men to kill this man.”

Every one of the chancellor’s audacious orders raised Bram’s blood pressure, until he could take no more of it.  “I’m in charge of this mission.  The situation doesn’t call for—”

“Follow your orders,” Virgil interrupted.  “And we’ll have the sunstone in short order.”

Bram’s hands clenched as his eyes scanned the men and women who were filled with fear and innocence.  The chancellor must think that death was the answer to everything.  He looked at Virgil in contempt, and only his Gnostic Helm hid his expression.

“What are you waiting for?” the callous man demanded.

“Have you not thought to search them for it?” he shot back.  “There’s no honor in striking down helpless worshipers.  My men will find the sunstone!”

Virgil groaned.  “We have no time for an exhaustive search.”  He took a breath in a manner that seemed like controlled anger, his voice cold and scathing.  “Are you prepared to do what is required, or are you too weak?”

“You’ll regret those words—”

“No—it’s time I took things into my own hands!”

Virgil reached into his coat pocket.  Bram’s hand went to his scabbard, but before his fingers closed on his sword, they seemed to freeze.  He could not move them, no matter how hard he tried.

“What manner of sorcery have you cast on me?” he demanded.

The chancellor did not respond.  Instead, he kept one hand inside his coat pocket and used his other to point at one of Bram’s men.  “You there—strike down this Minoan.”

The soldier obeyed Virgil’s command, and slashed his sword across the man’s neck and chest.  He instantly fell, with blood spurting from an open artery.  It slowly formed a pool of dark red across the mirrored glass floor.  The others watched in horror.

Bram’s heart beat fast amid the screams of terror and panic, but his full attention was on the man who had usurped his command.  Virgil’s dark magic forced his men to commit atrocious acts while anger boiled inside him.

The priests might have been steadfast before, but now he sensed their fear.  He heard murmurs of “dark sorcery” and “forbidden magic”, and realized these phrases were not meant to describe the audacity of Virgil’s actions, but rather the fact that he exerted the power of magic at all.  After all, the room had been rigged to prevent it.

“Give me the sunstone,” he demanded with an eerie calm.

The worshipers did not comply.  They merely huddled together in the corner of the room, each wearing the serene expression of one who has accepted death.

Virgil pointed to another of Bram’s soldiers, and then gestured toward a young woman in the crowd.  “You—kill her.”

The soldier complied by dragging the woman by her hand.  Kicking and screaming, she fought to free herself until the soldier ran his sword through her breast.  The entire room of people seemed to hold their breath, and Bram clearly heard the sound of the blade sliding in between flesh and bone—like carving a pumpkin for the Great Harvest.  It sickened him, and for a moment the room stood still.  The hostages stared in disbelief as their sister priestess fell to the floor, a look of shock and pity on her petrified face.  Bram had no tolerance for the wanton cruelty, but he was spellbound and forced to watch.  He wanted to scream with rage.

Virgil again pointed to the soldier with the bloody sword, and directed him to kill another man from the crowd.


Virgil slowly turned to face a small, bald-headed man who stood up from the crowd.  He was perhaps the least conspicuous of the worshippers, with a salt and pepper beard and the complexion of a young man—which defied the creases around his eyes that told of decades of struggle and hardship.

“Please stop—I beg you!” he pleaded.  “I am the Elder.  The people you slay have done nothing against you.  I will hand over the Pisces Stone—even though I fear what harm it may bring to this world in the wrong hands.  I cannot bear to see another of my children killed while I do nothing.  So take it and be gone from here!”

In the Elder’s outstretched hands sat an oval, quartz-like object.  Virgil wet his lips in anticipation.  He walked over and looked at it lovingly, as a parent would to a favorite child.  “Bram, pick up the sunstone.”

He felt himself obey.  As his fingers touched the surface, it emitted a faint, bluish glow—but only for a moment.  He thought he saw a reflection inside that was not his own, but that disappeared as well.  It was once again clear and quartz-like.

He took hold of it, and the Elder shrank back into the crowd.  Almost at once, he felt control return to his body.  Looking around, his heart sank at seeing the enfeebled worshippers, many of whom looked disappointed that their Elder had capitulated.  They were ready to die to save their artifact, even as their friends and colleagues lay lifeless on the floor.  These innocent men and women were murdered for no other reason but for Angkor’s king to have his prize.  Bram uttered a single command to his men, which came through clenched teeth.

“Move out.”

He was eager to leave the temple and rid himself of its cursed feel.  The guilt washed over him like a flood.  His men followed his lead, but they seemed disoriented, as if waking from a dream.  They also seemed regretful of their actions, especially those who were forced to do the killing.

As he passed by Virgil, he whispered a threat.  “You’ll pay for this.”

“We shall see,” the chancellor responded levelly.

Bram and his men left the meditation room and exited the temple exactly in the way they had come.  No one stood against them, even as they walked through the streets for all to see.  The villagers stared him down, seemingly aware of the crime he had committed.  Even so, they were powerless to stop him.

He cursed himself for allowing Virgil to usurp his command.  He might have been following orders, but he never intended for bloodshed against a people who never raised a hand in their defense.  He swore that he would tell his king everything.  He brought his hand to his belt pouch where he had placed the sunstone.  It had better be worth the price that was paid to retrieve it.  He and his men returned to the Heron, and prepared for their voyage home.

VIII. Evening of Diapente, Twenty-Ninth Day of Harvestmoon

The Heron’s return trip was a somber experience for Bram and his men.  Most of them returned to their cabins, angry and exhausted from the day’s events, but one man still had unfinished business.  Virgil Garvey entered his personal cabin and closed the door behind him.  Speaking words of magic, he secured the bolt and protected the room against eavesdropping.

The mission was a success.  He had obtained the Minoan sunstone—but even so, he still felt uneasy over his numerous confrontations with the Gnostic Knight.  It was not his idea to involve Bram at all, but his master had insisted.  He spent months researching the knight’s past, from his deeds during the War, to his adverse relationship with his mistress.  The profile suggested a cold and emotionless soldier—willing to kill for his loyalties—but when it came down to it, he balked at performing the simplest of tasks.  Virgil did not look forward to convincing his master that Bram would become an obstacle, rather than an ally.

Taking a deep breath, he sat on a stool next to a small oak table in the room’s corner.  He reached inside his coat pocket to retrieve the small stone he kept hidden there.  It was similar to the sunstone, but dark in color, and shaped like a teardrop.  He laid it on the table with the pointed-side facing down.  In defiance of gravity, it balanced itself without need of support.  Once again moving his hands in the somatic gestures of a spell, he activated the magic that allowed him to communicate through the object.  A darkness emanated from within it, and seemed to devour all existing light.

“Holy One,” he spoke aloud.  “As you commanded, we now have the Pisces Stone in our possession.  We are already en route to Angkor.”

Silence answered, but Virgil understood the unspoken words.

“We know what to do with it, my Lord,” he told the silence, “but are you certain we can trust Abaddon to fulfill his end of the bargain?”

Again, he paused to listen to words that only he heard.

“I’ll see to it, my Lord.  The Gnostic carries it now, but I’m afraid we can’t trust him.  He defied us at the Minoan temple.”

Silence ….

“Indeed, it’s disappointing, my Lord, but I’ll ensure he won’t be a problem ….

“Yes, I intend to remedy the situation ….

“Thank you, my Lord.”

The small stone dimmed.  Virgil’s hands trembled as cold sweat appeared on his pale face.  He placed the object back inside his coat, pleased with his master’s new direction.  With matters now concluded, he crawled onto his cot and passed out for several hours.

IX. Morning of Terminus, Thirtieth Day of Harvestmoon

The Heron’s return trip proved uneventful.  Bram spent most of the time in his cabin, unwilling to risk further contact with Virgil.  After falling victim to the chancellor’s sorcery, he realized that confronting him would do no good.  Mind compulsionwas a rare and powerful art, and many countries banned it entirely—Angkor included.  It gave him more leverage in settling the matter with his liege.

When his ship arrived at the capital, his navigations officer directed it to the military hangar, located far underground.  Angkor’s capital contained a sophisticated tunnel network known as the Substratum.  One of the entrances to these tunnels came from a long vertical shaft just outside the city walls.  It was an ingress made for airships, with a massive opening measuring more than a hundred spans in width—large enough for the largest ships in the king’s fleet to pass through.

An impenetrable steel gate covered the entrance when the passage was not in use, to prevent the enemy from gaining access.  Along with the hangar, the Substratum contained military facilities, such as training rooms, a cafeteria, an assembly hall, and of course the notorious dungeons.  A long, circular stairwell spun around the center of the Substratum and connected each of the levels to the surface.  The stairs eventually led to a small building in the capital’s Inner Sanctum.  Armed guardsmen stood on duty against possible infiltration, both inside and out.

Knowing how eagerly the king awaited his bounty, Bram set off for the palace as soon as he reached the surface.  His men followed closely behind, while Virgil walked to his side.  Neither he nor the chancellor said a word to each other since leaving Minoa—and he preferred it that way.  He intended to cite the unnecessary murders in the Minoan temple, and if possible, seek charges to be levied against his use of compulsion magic.

Though he did not expect the king to repudiate too harshly, the law mandated that the matter become public record, which would alert the wizard community.  If lucky, the despicable man would be forced to endure many years of close monitoring—and in rare cases, rogue wizards who continued to disrespect the rules of their kind tended to be quietly assassinated before word of their deeds harmed the wizard community’s already fragile reputation.

Inside the palace, the decorum relaxed as servants and honored guests went about their daily business.  The king’s personal guard, named theTemplars, maintained order.  These men had a reputation for upholding an air of discipline, no matter the situation.  Some claimed that a Templar could stand still for hours at a time without moving a muscle, but if anyone caused mischief, the Templar would leap from his post and take them down before any harm was done.

Bram had his mind so focused on speaking to the king that he was shocked when the Templar guarding the entrance to the throne room denied him access.  “What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded.  “I‘ve returned from a mission of great importance—King Richard expects me.”

“Is Mister Garvey in your party, sir?” the guard asked.

Bram’s heart sank.  Not only was it an insult and violation of rank to allow a chancellor access before a Gnostic Knight, but it also allowed Virgil a chance to sway the king’s opinion by telling a different side to the story.  Bram barely had time to speak his mind before the chancellor pushed in front.

“I’m Virgil Garvey,” he said.

The guard turned to address him.  “His Majesty requests your presence, sir.  You have permission to enter.”

Bram repressed his anger.  He would have to wait his turn.  There was little he could do, if the king requested Virgil to enter first.  His only solace was that he still possessed the sunstone—and of course he expected his word and credibility meant more than those of a newly appointed official.  His hand went absently to his belt pouch, as if to seek comfort in the sunstone’s presence.  His fingers felt inside the leather case, rubbing the smooth surface.  He let out a sigh of relief.

The guard also addressed Bram’s soldiers.  “You’ve been asked to return to your homes.  The king will congratulate you later tonight with a celebration at his table.  Sir Morrison—your presence is still required.  You may sit in the meantime,” the guard gestured to a bench at the other side of the hall, “or you may remain standing.  I don’t know how long it’ll be.”

“Forgive us, Captain,” one of Bram’s soldiers whispered, looking meek and downtrodden.

Bram would not allow his men to share in his burden.  They were his responsibility, and he would see them off with high spirits. “You performed your duty, soldier.  Go now—and if the king wills it, I’ll speak with you again shortly.”

The soldier nodded and followed the others out of the main hall.  Bram chose to remain standing until the king concluded his business with Virgil.  No Gnostic would be caught dead sitting and waiting on a bench.

Time passed, but he did not keep exact count.  Instead, he rehearsed his interpretation of the events.  The truth would not be easy to tell.  He had to act responsively and intelligently to any accusations that Virgil might make against him.  He found the speech difficult, since he did not quite believe it himself.  Virgil’s compulsion forced him and his men to perform atrocious acts that they would have never done on their own, but would the king see it that way?  Would his close ties and long loyalties stand up against the chancellor’s chicanery?

While his mind filled with potential rebuttals, his gaze met that of the Templar on guard.  Disappointingly, the man’s helm hid his face—but his voice sounded familiar.  Bram thought he might have met this man toward the end of the War, when the king sent his own elite forces to join the other ground units.  Gnostics and Templars fought in the same platoon, and he remembered a few of them from the battle of Dobb’s Plain.  Since their order only numbered in the dozens of men, he stood a good chance of knowing this particular Templar.

Several more minutes passed and Bram grew confident of his defense.  At that point, the door opened and Virgil poked his head outside to whisper something in the guard’s ear.  Bram strained to hear, but the words were inaudible.  Virgil might have used his magic to keep the voices muffled.

The Templar turned toward Bram and said, “Sir Morrison, His Majesty is ready for you.  Please proceed.”

Bram wet his lips and entered the throne room.  The Templar followed, and closed the door behind them.  Two other Templars stood on either side of the king, who sat in his throne atop a series of steps.  Virgil took his place beside the king, a presumptuous spot for a mere chancellor.

The room itself was completely bathed in red, including the walls, carpets, and rest of the décor, but the sheer wealth saved it from being gaudy.  Rubies dangled from drapes on the windows, while the red glow from a setting sun put gentle emphasis on the tone.  Gold thread and diamonds made a path up the steps leading to the throne.  There sat a man with a red beard—Angkor’s king, Richard Cromwell.

Bram knelt before his liege, holding the sunstone high above his head.  “Your Grace, it’s my honor and privilege to present you with the Sunstone of Minoa.”

The king stood up and walked to the bottom of the stairs.  The two guards followed him down.  He spoke to Bram in bold words, in a proclamation that masqueraded as personal praise.  “We thank you for successfully completing your mission, Sir Morrison.  On behalf of our strong nation and its people, we congratulate you for your success.  You are asked to join us tonight as we celebrate your accomplishment.”

“That would please me, Your Majesty.”

“Your king is also pleased.  Now hand me the sunstone.”

Bram took a step forward and paused.  “Your Majesty—it’s my duty to report some grave details.  Actions performed during our mission threaten our national interests.  I ask to speak with you without the presence of … other individuals.”  Bram looked to Virgil’s direction when he spoke, but the chancellor returned the look with a smug grin.

“There’s no need for private discussions,” the king responded.  “You’ve done well with what I’ve asked, and I care not for the details.”

Bram would not allow the matter to be dismissed so easily.  “Would it concern Your Lordship to discover that your representative usurped my leadership by way of compulsion magic—or that he murdered the Minoans in what might have otherwise been a peaceful exchange?”

The king paused for a moment and looked over his shoulder, to his throne where Virgil stood.  “Is this true, Mister Garvey?”

“It is, my Lord,” the chancellor responded, “but I remind you that the Minoans are all accomplished wizards, with talents at least as great as my own.  In all fairness to Sir Morrison, I don’t think he recognized the threat before him.  Rather than take the risk that one of these wizards get the better of us, I chose to compel Sir Morrison and his soldiers to perform some tasks that were—let’s say—modified from the original plan.  My motives were only to act as expeditiously as possible at a critical moment.”

“Very well,” the king said, “so it’s settled.”

“Not so fast,” Bram volleyed back to the chancellor.  He wanted to charge forward with his hands at Virgil’s throat, and it took all his self-restraint to pose a rational rebuttal.  “If the Minoans presented such a danger, the proper protocol would have been to brief us beforehand.  Our mission statement mentioned no requirement for sorcery, or I’d have brought wizards of my own.  The fact is that we were told nothing of the mission, save for a pittance of details that Mister Garvey divulged at his own whim.  And for what—so a chancellor from your court can embarrass our country for some … some trinket?”

“Control your tone in the king’s court, Gnostic!” one of the Templars warned.

“Don’t be alarmed,” the king said.  “Sir Morrison is understandably upset.”  He assumed a fatherly tone.  “I’ll give you peace of mind, Sir Morrison, but first I ask that you hand over the sunstone.  Don’t make me ask again.”

Bram stepped forward hastily to present the artifact.  As he placed it on his monarch’s up-faced palm, he saw it flash blue, just as it had done in the Minoan temple.  In that instant, he saw something inside.  It was a man—he was certain—but not a reflection of anyone in the room.  As soon as the king grasped it, the image disappeared.

“Your Majesty,” Bram bowed, apologetically.

The king cradled the stone tenderly, as a mother would to an infant.  One of the Templars descended the stairs with a silver tray, and after staring with wonder at its multi-faceted surface, the king reluctantly placed it on the tray’s polished surface.  He then shifted his attention to Bram.

“First, let me assure you that the confidentiality of the mission was put foremost before the details.  I did not intent to keep you from the truth, and it’s lamentable that the secrecy left you unprepared.  Fortunately, I assigned a trusted ally to supervise.  With his aid, you completed your task in spite of the confusion—so it seems that everything worked out in the end.”

“My Lord,” Bram answered, “I don’t understand.  How has a mid-level official so thoroughly earned your trust?”

“I’d hoped you’d realize by now that Mister Garvey’s title is a simple formality,” the king answered.  “I expect you to keep this confidential until I can proclaim it officially, but I’ve already laid plans for Virgil to succeed the role of First Advisor to the King.”

Bram felt the blood drain from his face.  He bowed his head, hoping to hide his expression.  He was a fool—a damned fool!  Virgil was untouchable as First Advisor, a position that would grant him power second only to King Richard himself.  Bram felt humiliated, and expected retribution to come in short order.  He badly wanted to be out of the king’s sight, but he was trapped in front of his monarch’s overpowering gaze.

“There’s just one more matter, Sir Morrison.”

“Yes, Sire?”  Bram braced himself for what he knew was coming.

“Your words today have left a bitter taste.  The sunstone may appear to you as a trinket, but did you not trust your liege to have good reason to demand it from the Minoans?”

“Of course, my Lord!” Bram rushed out, hoping to lessen the impending punishment.  “You know of my years of loyalty and service.  I’ve put you—and this country—before my own life on numerous occasions!”

“Indeed you have, Sir Morrison, but you must realize the burden this puts on the knighthood to have one of its members call my judgment into question.”

“I assure Your Lordship that I had no such intention.  Yet I wonder how a man whom I’ve never met is suddenly granted a seat at your right hand—or how a Gnostic is to perform his duties if not briefed of his tasks beforehand.  I simply want to ensure that those in whom you’ve placed your trust do not deceive you.  Therefore, I ask if this prize is worth the value you’ve placed on it, or the impact to our nation’s pride and reputation to have murdered lowly priests in order to acquire it.”

Bram stood awaiting his judgment.  Not that he intended to challenge his king, but he had the courage to defend his liege from someone who he believed to be a charlatan.  If that should lead to repudiation—then so be it.

The king smiled.  “Your intrepidity is a nod to the knighthood, Sir Morrison.  It’s true that the sunstones have been around for most of recorded history, and while many scholars have studied them, no one has ever discovered anything of value.  The Gaians have always claimed a connection with the Divine, but only a fool would put their faith in a dead religion.

“So in light of that, I forgive your skepticism and applaud your sensibilities.  After all, if there were powers within the sunstones, why should we be the first to discover them?  How did our enemies fall to our might during the War, when they could have used their own sunstones against us?  I believe a demonstration is in order.”

Richard headed toward the silver platter holding the sunstone, while his smug-looking and soon-to-be First Advisor approached by his side.

“I ask that you come to the top of the stairs, Sir Morrison,” the king said, “and witness the sky from outside the window.”

The view behind the throne gave an exquisite panorama of the surrounding district.  Dusk slowly settled, and the last rays of sunlight bathed the trees and fountains in a gentle light.  Virgil bent toward Richard, and whispered a few inaudible words into his king’s ear.

Taking the sunstone in his left hand, the king chanted words in the language of magic.  He extended his arms, and dark clouds moved in to mire the orange sky, casting a menacing shadow over the capital.  The dull rumble of thunder reverberated through the thick walls of the palace.  People outside looked up and quickly ran for cover.  In moments, the clouds swirled and twisted like water spiraling down a drain.  Darkness covered the courtyard as forks of lightning streaked across the sky.

Bram knew that Richard Cromwell had little or no training in wizardry, but with the sunstone’s powers, he had control over unfathomable magic.  Somehow, the forces inside the stone had been unlocked.  The king curled the fingers of his right hand into a fist, and a bolt of pure, divine energy shot down from the heavens, engulfing one of the tall oaks in a pillar of flame.  Richard let it burn for a moment, but then he relaxed his fist into a flat palm.  A downpour of rain fell directly onto the oak to quench the fire.

A charred and blackened trunk stood in place of the once mighty tree, with most of the lesser branches having been consumed in seconds.  Richard lowered his arms, and the storm dissipated.  The quiescent sky returned, and the final rays of sunlight streamed through the window.  Except for the skeletal remains of the oak, the courtyard was once again at peace.

Wearing a smile of satisfaction, the king hurried to one of his Templar guards, and ordered him to leave the manor and assure the people outside that they would be safe, and have nothing more to fear from the sky that day.

Bram merely stared out the window in disbelief, unable to repress the anxiety in his heart. He saw with his own eyes the power and might of the sunstone.

“Your Majesty, forgive my earlier skepticism, but I had no idea the sunstone was capable of such might—”

“It has a name, you know.”  The king approached Bram by the window, both men watching as the last rays of sunlight glinted across the sunstone’s many facets.  “Long ago, people called it the Pisces Stone.  Of course, that name hasn’t been used for centuries.  There are three others like it, but the kingdoms that possess them have no concept of their power.  That’s why we upheld the utmost confidentiality in your mission.  You can imagine how exposed we’d be, if our enemies learned to utilize this power.  They’d surely use it against us.”

“But how has Angkor come to learn of these powers?” Bram asked.

The king did not even need to respond, for Bram already saw the smile creeping upon Virgil’s lips.

“Ah yes,” the king mused.  “Now you understand.  Mister Garvey happened upon this discovery, and of course he brought it to my attention.  We owe him much for his loyalty.”

Bram burned with anger inside.  No wonder Virgil was so overconfident.  He knew the secret of the sunstone before the mission to Minoa ever started, and Bram was a fool for ever challenging him.  But what now?  He needed to know the extent of the king’s ambition.

“So I suppose you intend to reclaim the others?” he asked.

“But of course, Sir Morrison.  No nation in history has ever possessed all four.  With their combined power, our empire would become the greatest that has ever existed!”

“How then would you go about it?  Return to war with Koba and Kitezh by seizing theirs by force?”

The king laughed.  “What else would you have me do?  Allow my enemies to learn of these powers over time, so that they can use their own sunstones against us?  We have no recourse but to be the aggressor, before word of the sunstone’s power can spread.”

Bram said nothing.  The king had reason to laugh, if the logic were so simple.  Even so, something did not feel right.

“Your Majesty,” Virgil interjected, “I simply can’t stand by while you lecture to this Gnostic on a course so flawless and obvious in merit that it is painful for others to watch.  Either he’s with us or against us.  I’ll leave it to your wisdom to determine which.”

Bram’s blood boiled with rage.  He would not allow the manipulative bastard to direct his king’s anger against him.  “How dare you—” he growled.

“Be at ease, Sir Knight,” the king urged, “I ask you plainly—where’s your heart in this matter?”

For once in his life, Bram searched his feelings.  His first instinct was to follow his king unquestioningly, but he thought for a moment about the Minoans, who had recently felt the wrath of Angkor’s might.  With Richard aiming for all of the sunstones, where would it leave the rest of the world?  Would King Richard’s ambitions seek to subjugate all of Gaia?

No—Bram knew his king, and the man was not a tyrant.  In fact, he had passed on much of Angkor’s prosperity to its citizens since the War’s end.  If more pain and suffering was in store for Richard’s enemies, then surely it would lead to peace and prosperity for his allies.  Bram’s loyalties had always been well placed in his liege, so he saw no reason not to stay the course.

“Despite what your First Advisor thinks of me,” he responded, “I am loyal to you in all things, my Lord.”  He finished with an appropriately low and humble bow.

“Your Majesty—his words are not convincing,” Virgil argued.  “You explained your cause in good faith, yet he hesitates—and his face is filled with doubt.  If he truly supported us, his eyes would be afire with lust for this power.”

Bram would not stand by while this filthy dog besmirched his honor in front of his own liege.  He reached for his sword in anger, a move that followed quickly with a reaction from the Templars.  Bram knew he would never close the distance to Virgil before they struck him down.

“Remember you’re in the presence of the king, knave!” the Templar to the king’s right shouted.  Bram removed his hand from his sword and waited for him to relax.  He did not.

“Virgil, I see no reason to condemn this man,” stated the king plainly.  “He’s already proven his trustworthiness.  What more would you ask of him?”

Virgil paused for a moment, no doubt conjuring a fitting contest.  He then gestured for the king to draw near.  Once the two were close, he whispered his suggestion in the king’s ear.

“Ah yes,” the king mused with a look of satisfaction.  Then, turning his attention to Bram, he asked, “Are you familiar with the tribes living in the Mountains of Ur?”

“The Conjurions?”  Bram was baffled by the question, but he gave his king an honest answer.  “I know of them, my Lord, but I’ve never been to that region.”

“Few people have,” the king returned.  “It’s a remote valley high in the mountains, and there’s little reason to venture so far.  However, it’s come to my attention that they’ve grown to resent Angkor’s reach and influence, and now they’ve threatened us with their powers.”

“How threatening can they be?” Bram responded, “especially now with the sunstone’s power?  Surely they can do no harm.”

“It’s true the tribesmen themselves are harmless,” the king answered.  “However, the threat is in the form of their unique magical powers.”

Bram failed to make the connection, so his king explained.

“The Conjurion tribe has the power to summon spawn into our world.  We now know that the infestation of creatures in this area is the direct result of their witchcraft—and yet, what we’ve seen to date is a mere fraction of their powers.  Unfortunately, with their homeland protected by the mountains, the power of the Pisces Stone is not enough.  Our airships are unable to penetrate the wall of fog that surrounds their village, and neither can I spare my ground forces, since I need them to acquire the other sunstones.  What I need is a more tactical infiltration—led by someone with your expertise.”

Bram finally understood.  “I’d be honored to deal with the Conjurion threat, my Lord.  What would you have me do?”

“I need you to assassinate their chief.”

“Their chief, Sire—would that not enrage them further?”

“Nay, our generals believe the current chief to be the source of the tribe’s animosity.  They believe that eliminating their leader will result in confusion, and allow us time to acquire the other sunstones.”

Bram did not like the idea of going from one mission of bloodshed to another, but at least he understood the reasons behind it.  If the tribal chief was willing to incite violence, then he had to be eliminated.

“I accept the mission, Your Majesty.  By my sword, I’ll slay the Conjurion chief.”

“Excellent, Sir Morrison,” the king responded happily.  “If you accomplish this task, I’ll invite you within my inner circle.  Only a small number of people know my full ambitions.  If we accomplish our goals, the rewards shall be greater than you could possibly imagine.”

The king turned to the Templar behind him and whispered something.  The man went to a cabinet at the back of the room, and retrieved what appeared to be a small metal box with red runes carved on the sides.  The man handed the box to Richard, who then turned back to face Bram.

“Allow me to explain your mission.  First and foremost, the tribesmen must never learn that Angkor is responsible for the assassination.  We’ve therefore prepared a device that you must plant nearby the chief’s location.  Once you accomplish this task, you must return to Angkor without being seen.”

“How does the device work, exactly?” Bram asked.

“Good that you should ask, Sir Morrison.  I’ll let Mister Garvey explain.”

Bram’s nemesis approached, causing his skin to tingle with hatred.

“This ordinary chest has been constructed with black magic,” the vile man stated.  “If placed nearby, it will search out and kill the chief of the Ur tribe.  All it requires is a charge from the Pisces Stone to give it power.”

Virgil nodded to the king, who still held the sunstone in his grasp.  Richard once more spoke words of magic, and touched the stone to the box.  For a moment, the box glowed with a soft red hue.

“Careful you don’t jar it too strongly,” Virgil warned, with a sardonic grin.  “I assure you—you won’t want it opened prematurely.”

Bram took the box and placed it carefully under his arm.  He wanted nothing more than to be out of the room and away from the contemptible man who single-handedly stripped him of his rank and usurped his relationship with his king.

“Shall I take my leave, Sire?” he asked with a bow.

“Not just yet,” the king responded.  “I’ve arranged a guide for your mission.  He can lead you through the mountains of Ur, and help to combat any spawn you encounter.”

“It won’t be necessary, Your Majesty.  I assure you.  I have all the necessary training.”

“You may want to reconsider, Sir Morrison,” the king firmly warned.  “The mountain route is not an easy one.  We know of strong spawn, which may block your path.”

He wondered why his king would be so insistent.  “Who is this guide?”

“It is I, Bram.”

He spun around to greet the Templar guard from earlier.  The man walked forward and removed his helm.  Bram recognized him instantly, and was taken completely by surprise.

“Kane—is it truly you after all these years?”

For an instant, his anger and disappointment disappeared, replaced with joy at seeing his old friend.  His heart was still heavy with the burden he must carry forward, but this small reprieve was a glorious interruption from the embarrassment he had just endured.

“I take it you know this man?” the king asked, with a hint of surprise.

Bram turned back to face his liege.  “Yes, my Lord.  We grew up on the outskirts of Niedam.  We also spent time together at the Academy before Kane left to join the Templars.”

“Then it appears to be serendipity,” the king said.  “Now that it’s settled, you shall both leave for Ur first thing tomorrow morning.”

Bram once again bowed before his king.  “Yes, Sire.”

After leaving the throne room, Bram felt a firm grip on his shoulder.  His friend Kane had followed him out.

“I know this isn’t how you would’ve wanted us to reunite, Bram.”

He nodded, but was too humiliated to respond.  After a decade long absence from his childhood friend, he did not want his first encounter to be while ostracized before his own king.

“I’m here to support you, Bram.  This exercise is the only thing that stands in the way of an opportunity of a lifetime.  I also want to hear about your life since leaving the Academy.  In the meantime, I’ll leave you to prepare for the banquet tonight.”

Bram had almost forgotten about the king’s celebration.  After all that had happened, he wanted to hide from the prying eyes and sharp whispers of the king’s court.  But after Kane’s words of support, he felt he had to muster something.

“We’ll talk more tomorrow, then,” he said.

“I look forward to it,” Kane returned

Bram made an effort to smile and left the palace.

X. Evening of Terminus, Thirtieth Day of Harvestmoon

As soon as Rosa learned of the Heron’s return, she set off for the West Plaza in the capital’s Outer Sanctum.  She knew that Bram crossed this wide open square when traveling from the palace, and was excited to meet him half way.  She only hoped that rumors of bizarre weather patterns would not delay his landing.

Upon arriving in the plaza, she scanned the bustling crowd.  He had not yet arrived, so she sat on a stone bench to wait.  The gardens looked so beautiful in the evening.  Fragrant roses grew around tall oaks, which provided an elegant canopy.  Small lampposts illuminated the stone path as the sun slowly slipped behind the distant mountains.  The light from the lamps came from magical rocks called luminess.  They carried a charge for weeks at a time, and even novice wizards knew how to make them.

She beamed at the prospect of mending her worn relationship.  She wanted to prove once and for all that her father was wrong about Bram, and she would share a bond with him that lasted forever.  Standing in front of Cedric’s model brought back memories of how she revived him from the brink of death.  Though years of peace had weakened their bond, a single remembrance brought it all back.

It had to mean something profound, so while awaiting his return, she thought back to what had caused them to grow apart.  She believed it started when she was willing to embrace civilian life, at her father’s behest.  He had long desired to see her wed, raising heirs, and establishing her place on Angkor’s social ladder.   However, embracing that lifestyle was precisely what had pushed Bram away.

Most people misunderstood his true nature.  He was not the cold and detached knight that people saw at first glance.  Rather, he had a heart of compassion that he chose to hide behind a wall made of black Gnostic armor.  The real reason he fought so hard was to protect Angkor’s citizens from the tyranny of invading nations.  He did not admit it outwardly, but his upbringing had nurtured a soft spot for the weak and downtrodden.  Fighting for the underprivileged was important to him.  It gave him a purpose, and by siding with the nobility, Rosa had undermined that.

She should have realized it sooner, but somewhere in her life’s journey, she lost touch with her own deep-rooted beliefs.  Much like Bram, she had once desired a life of helping others.  Her childhood stories fostered her interest in the healing side of white magic.  When she was older, she wanted to pursue a formal education, but her father stood in her way.  He was among a conservative class of businessmen within Angkor who distrusted wizards, fearing that their growing power and influence would inevitably threaten the stability of the current establishment, which had kept the kingdom prosperous for centuries.  As such, he forbade her from attending any of Angkor’s schools of sorcery.

Even in the face of his embargo, she found a way to sneak funds from the family’s coffers to pay for a tutor.  When her father found out, he beat her severely.  It was the only time he had ever laid a hand upon her, but she was not dissuaded.  It made her even more determined to follow through, and she even faced down his threats to disown her from the family fortune. 

Fortunately, it never came to that.  A well-respected headmaster of a school of white wizardry heard of her potential, and visited her father’s estate to offer a scholarship.  Getting this kind of attention was highly prestigious, and it became the talk of the town.  With word propagating on the success of the banker’s daughter, he reversed his position and demanded that she follow through.

She spent the next several years studying, until the government redirected the students for combat.  Once again, her father attempted to turn her from the craft, but his efforts only cemented her resolve.

In the middle of her term as a fifth-year student, the military took a group of young wizards on a field exercise in the Saladina Desert, near the base of the Snowy Mountains.  Rosa volunteered to be a prefect, where she instructed the novices in basic training.  The first several hours proceeded without issue, but a careless error by the accompanying professor led them to an ambush by a squad of Kitezhian soldiers.  Rosa had barely enough time to grab the arms of two young female students before the enemy focused their bloodlust on them.  She directed the girls up the mountain to hide, casting spells to increase their running speed.  Even so, the soldiers tracked their retreat and followed them, knowing the value of slaying enemy wizards.

After hours of running and on the brink of exhaustion, she at last found salvation.  Looking skyward, she noticed an airship overhead.  Casting so many spells had left her weak, but she summoned enough strength for one final incantation.  In full daylight, she cast a flare bright enough to catch the ship’s attention.  She only hoped they would respond, for the signal would also reveal her location to her pursuers.

With the last of her energy spent, she sagged against the side of the mountain.  The two girls huddled by her side, sobbing with fear.  She instructed them to be brave, but she barely contained her own terror.  It did not take long before she heard shouts from the enemy.  When they reached her, she would be cornered and helpless.  She closed her eyes awaiting death, when a voice spoke up beside her.

“Hey, over here,” it whispered.

She stood up and placed herself in front of the cowering girls.

“Don’t be alarmed—I’m Angkorian.”  A man popped out from a pile of rocks.  She recognized the black armor of a Gnostic Knight.  Pointing back the way he came, he continued.  “The way to my ship is up that path.  We saw your signal and came to help.”

“There are others,” she explained.  “We were ambushed in the desert.  Did they escape?”

“I don’t know,” he responded, “but you must hurry.”

She turned to where he pointed, but before walking more than a few steps, the sound of the enemy erupted behind her.

“The witch is over here!” one of the Kitezhian soldiers yelled.

The knight drew his sword and leaped to the one in front, piercing him in the chest before he had a chance to react.  Two more Kitezhians rounded the mountainside and were dispatched just as swiftly.  Rosa watched in amazement, unable to leave her rescuer behind.  She urged the girls toward the path up the mountain, and told them to follow it to the airship.  They obeyed her immediately.

With renewed strength, she ran toward the knight to join him in battle.  She recalled the incantation for a shield and cast it in time to deflect an enemy blow.  The knight turned and slashed at the man, killing him instantly.  He stopped his swordplay long enough to wink at her before leaping to the others, ending the battle with eight more kills.

Afterward, she joined the knight in his airship.  She learned his name was Bram Morrison, a man whose reputation had already spread throughout Angkor.  Later, she found out her other classmates had perished in the ambush.  Bram tried to comfort her by asking her to join him.  Through mixed emotion, she agreed—and from then on, they traveled and fought together.

Of course, once the War had ended and peace reigned again, white wizardry had little to offer outside of medical research or hospital duty.  She had no interest in these professions, so she instead became the daughter her father always wanted.  He was pleased with her change of heart, and she grew content with her chosen lifestyle.

Only now did she realize that this choice came with a price.  Although it was easy to get used to servants, a big house, and new social connections, none of these trifles made her any happier.  In fact, she hated her father’s superficial friends and detested her transformation into a mockery of the warrior she had once been.  Her father would never understand, but she had to choose her own path.  Like Bram, she felt the need for a greater purpose.

She nearly burst from the anticipation of revealing her change of heart to Bram.  Growing impatient, she looked to the edge of the square, where a Vinetan pub played festive music.  She recognized a few of Bram’s men as they stepped outside, blissful and drunk.  She found it curious to see them without their captain, and wondered if Bram had already passed her by.  She was almost ready to backtrack when she finally saw a man in black armor walk underneath the central stone arch.

“Bram!” she called out, running into his warm embrace.  “I’m so glad you’re not hurt,” she told him.  “I was so anxious.”

“What’s this all about?” he asked with a forced smile.  “I would’ve come sooner, but the king insisted on speaking with me personally.”

“That’s fantastic news!  I’m so proud of your accomplishments!”

For some reason, his mood darkened and he shook his head.

“Bram, what is it?” she asked, concerned.  She put a hand on his shoulder to try to draw him in.

“It’s nothing,” he responded, having once again regained his composure.  “I’m just exhausted.  By the way, the king invited us to a banquet this evening.  It’s to honor the mission’s successful completion.”

“That sounds like wonderful news, but you seem upset.  What’s the matter?”

He sighed.  “I’d rather be getting some rest, but I’m obliged to attend.  It’s a formality, and I’m not too thrilled about it—that’s it.”

“Well, either way, I came as soon as I heard you’d returned.  You never told me you were leaving, so I was worried.”

“You know my mandate.  I can’t talk about my missions.”

“I understand,” she responded.  Her heart beat strong and fast.  She wanted to blurt out her feelings, but the timing did not seem right.

“There’s something I want to tell you,” she began.  “It concerns us both, but I don’t want to say it now.  Let’s attend the banquet first, and enjoy the honors bestowed upon you.  We can speak more later.”

“Sure, of course,” he responded, in his typical emotionless voice.

He smiled.  Again it seemed forced, but at least he offered her his arm.  They walked back to the manor, looking at the stars as they appeared in the sky, and saying nothing.

XI. Night of Terminus, Thirtieth Day of Harvestmoon

It did not take long for Bram to tire of the king’s banquet.  Many of the nation’s wealthiest politicians and businessmen attended, and it had all the makings of a grand farce.  He shook plenty of hands and received so many compliments he lost count.  It would have felt great under any other circumstance, but he knew the feast was not really in his honor. Rather, it was a self-congratulatory event for the aristocracy to celebrate the conquest of another piece of the world; to foster national pride in a bald attempt to justify the kingdom's aggressive warmongering.  He was sickened by it, and it took a conscious effort to maintain composure.  As soon as etiquette allowed, he bid farewell to his former crew and friends, and made for the door.  On his way out, he came across a familiar face.

“Ah, Mister Curtis,” he greeted Angkor’s Grand Craftsman with an outstretched hand.  “I’m glad to see you’ve made it.”

Cedric returned the gesture with a mighty grip.  “Sir Morrison, a very welcome pleasure it is.  We haven’t spoken in more than a year, and I’ve been eager to hear how you’ve been.  Are you here with Lady Reynolds?”

“Yes, Rosa’s nearby.  I’ve been meaning to introduce you—” Bram looked over his shoulder, hoping to make quick introductions and leave the banquet behind him.  However, she was trapped in a conversation with three haughty noblewomen who appeared to be gossiping her ear off.  He frowned at missing his chance to conclude quickly.

“We’ve already met, actually,” Cedric returned, as he took a sideways step to get in front of Bram’s vision.  “It was last year, at the Unification Day centennial.”

Bram remembered the day he left Rosa for the first time.  The king had ordered him to assess the military capabilities of the empire of Ek’ Balam on the Southern Continent.  He knew she was looking forward to the event, but his mission mandated he leave in secret.  Undoubtedly, she attended the celebration alone—knowledge that filled him with profound regret, and something he carried with him on every mission that followed.

“She’s a wonderful woman,” Cedric complimented.  “You’re very fortunate.”

Bram nodded politely, still hoping to move on and leave the craftsman to the other guests.  However, the man kept on talking.  Bram gritted his teeth.

“So, tell me how my airship is doing.”

Thinking of the Heron lightened the mood a bit, and Bram smiled.  “She continues to fly like the day she was built, my friend.  She never disappoints.”

“That’s good to hear.”  Cedric’s toothy grin crept wider, and it looked like he had something to say, but was still determining the right way to frame it.  Bram wondered if it would be impolite to cut the conversation short—but before he slipped away, Cedric found his words.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he began.  “It’s just a rumor, to be sure, but I’d heard you might be moving on from your role as captain.”  He took a moment to utter a nervous laugh, as if responding to the awkwardness of the moment.  “Probably none of my business, but I recall how much time we spent customizing the Heron’s design for your specifications.  I just can’t imagine another man at its helm.”

Bram took a deep breath.  He did not appreciate Cedric’s intrusion into private matters, nor did he care for the man’s flattery.  Clearly the Grand Craftsman had his connections, but what were his motives for breaching such a sensitive subject?

“The rumors are true, Cedric, but I ask that you be a bit more … discerning about things you hear around the hangar.  The truth is that the king has asked me to go on a solo mission outside the country, so I’ll be parting with the Heron for its duration, and potentially other missions to follow.”

Cedric furrowed his brow.  “I don’t understand,” he admitted.  “Who’s going to captain her in your absence?”

“I believe that’s for the king to decide, but I’m sure your ship will be in good hands.”

Cedric’s smile returned, though Bram sensed that this one was forced.  “Well, I confess I find this news to be most … extraordinary.” He said it innocently, though his eyes betrayed insincerity.  “I just can’t seem to recall the last time a captain was asked to perform solo work in the field.”

Bram’s eyes narrowed, and he was put off by the constant prying.  “I’m not sure I understand what you’re implying, but either way the mission’s classified.  If you must know, I was promised a fair reward, and found it hard to refuse.”

Bram lied about the last part, but not because he cared to save his pride.  Rather, he knew full well the consequences of revealing confidential matters, especially directives straight from the king—and he hoped his lie would satisfy Cedric’s curiosity.  The craftsman was a shrewd fellow, and though Bram had worked well with Cedric in the past, he did not want to complicate things further by having Cedric snoop about while he was gone.

Cedric nodded reluctantly, looking slightly abashed.  “Of course,” he said in a matter that sounded like an apology.  “I offer you best wishes for your journey, and may the king’s good graces be with you.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been working late, and this party has me exhausted.”

At last, the conversation seemed to be at an end.  “Live in good health, Mister Curtis,” Bram replied, glad it was all over.

“You as well, sir.”  After one more polite nod, Cedric headed toward the door.

Bram saw his opportunity to leave as well.  He found Rosa talking to the same three women by the champagne table, and decided to rescue her.  After seeing the small gesture he made with his head, she excused herself from her conversation and came to his side.

“Hello, dear.  Enjoying the party?”

“The time of my life …” he said curtly, and then he noticed Rosa’s crestfallen look.  He tried again, this time in a much brighter tone.  “I think it’s time for me to head to bed, Rosie.  Do you need to make any final goodbyes before we leave?”

“Not at all,” she said, extending her hand.  He took it, and curled his forearm around hers.  Turning towards the door, they left the party to the other guests.

XII. Night of Terminus, Thirtieth Day of Harvestmoon

Bram and Rosa arrived at their manor house, still locked arm in arm.  Neither said a word since leaving the king’s banquet.  The stars lit their path, and he took the opportunity to bask in her presence, not knowing when he might see her again.  It would have been a good time to try to heal the rift between them, but the moment felt too precious to be interrupted with words.

The chambermaid awaited in the foyer.

“Milord,” she said, curtsying as Bram entered.  Then turning to Rosa, with a nod, “Milady, I’ve changed the sheets and turned down the pillows, as you requested.”

“Thank you.  That will be all,” Bram dismissed.

“Milord, I’ve also laid out clothes for your travels.  I trust you still intend to depart early tomorrow morning?”

Whether it was accidental or a deliberate attempt to meddle, the maid had nevertheless ruined his attempt at a secret departure.  Rosa’s head spun around, and her eyes went wide.  Her mouth opened, but no words came out.

“What’s the matter with you?” Bram shook a clenched fist at the chambermaid.  The young girl shrank back.  “I specifically asked you to keep these arrangements private—Rosa, wait!”  He reached out with his hand, but she had already fled up the stairwell.

He was furious.  Ignoring the chambermaid’s fumbling apologies, he yelled some additional curses as he chased his despondent lover up the stairs.  His pursuit led him to the master bedroom.  At the head of a freshly made bed sat Rosa, dabbing her eyes with the frills of a lace handkerchief.

“So, you just arrived, and yet you already intend to leave again without telling me?”

Bram halted in mid breath.  He did not know how to respond.

“Is that it?” she pressed.  “You confide your intentions in a servant girl, and yet for me you’re silent?”

Bram wished he could come up with a justification, but nothing came to mind.  “It’s complicated.”

Rosa laughed between her tears.  “Do you have any idea how I feel when you leave for days a time, and I’m left to wonder where you are—or even if you’re still alive?”

“Perhaps you ought to have more faith,” he reproached.  “I’ve survived worse ordeals.”

She opened her mouth as if to retort, but held her tongue.  “Bram, stop,” she let out after a pause of frustration.  She dabbed her eyes once more with the handkerchief, then placed it on a small tray at the end of her dresser.  “I don’t want to quarrel.”

“Neither do I.”  He inched forward and reached out to touch her, but he hesitated.  His eyes met the floor.  “It’s different this time.  It’s best if I just left quietly.”

She looked at him pleadingly.  “Why can’t you trust me with the truth?  We can talk through it—like we used to.”

He scoffed.  “Rosie … you’ve made known your distaste for the knighthood.  Besides, you’re better off if I don’t involve you.”

“Well, all of that’s about to change,” she promised.  “I’ve been doing some thinking—.”

“About what?”

“It’s about us—”

“You mean marriage?” Bram crossed his arms, and his voice took on a cynical edge.  He had an idea about where the conversation was headed.  It was a path like many others, carved out over countless moonlit talks.  “You’ve been speaking with your father again, haven’t you?”

“No—I mean, yes … I mean—”

“You know I have no love for his opinions.”

“I know, Bram, but will you just listen?  It’s not about my father.  The fact is I’ve changed my mind about civilian life altogether.  I’ve decided to give it all up, so I can travel the world with you—like we used to.”

He stared at her, speechless and dumbfounded by her radical change of heart.  Though he always wanted to hear these words, the timing was terrible, and he doubted if she had given it enough thought.  Having determined for himself that it was nothing more than a passing fancy, he shook his head and brushed it aside.

“Just like that, huh?  What brought about these fickle notions?”

Rosa blinked. “I’ve come to this conclusion on my own, and there’s nothing fickle about it! I’ve seen how we’ve drifted apart, and I’m ready to start over.”

“And you think that by traipsing by my side, things will be like the old days?”

“Why can’t they be—?”

He scoffed again.  She needed to hear the truth, so he took out his index finger and used a pointing gesture to emphasize his point.  “Rosie, you’re not this naïve—and it’s not that simple, either.  Things aren’t like they used to be!”

“And why not …?” she challenged with eyes afire.

He returned her look with eyes of frost, but had no answer.  He simply wanted the conversation to be at an end.  Not that his heart did not yearn for her company, but too many emotions clouded his judgment.  Better to deal with them at another time.

“If you knew the answer, you wouldn’t ask.  Out of respect, I won’t drag this out further.  I’ll sleep in the guesthouse tonight, and if you still feel the same way, then we can speak of it when I return.”

“Bram,” she pleaded.  “Please—don’t go.”

He ignored her, and headed for the door.

“Bram—” her voice trailed off as he placed his hand upon the door’s latch.

“Bram!” she hollered in a tone he had never heard from her before.  He halted in his tracks.  “How dare you turn your back on me, after all we’ve been through?”  Her voice cracked in between the tears.  “You used to trust me with your life, but now you don’t even treat me with respect!  Of course I want things like they used to be.  I don’t have a bloody care for this manor house or my father’s company.  I thought that maybe it would lead to a more comfortable lifestyle, but it turns out no matter how hard I tried, it would never live up to what we had when it was just the two of us.  I love you, Abraham.  I want to start over.”

Bram remained with his back to her, still unable to make things right.  If her heart was anything like his, it was being crushed at that very moment.

“Fine!” she shouted.  “Go on with your precious knighthood, so you can keep the glory for yourself!”  She grabbed a nearby perfume bottle from the nightstand and threw it.  It struck the wall near Bram’s face, staining the ornate wallpaper with scents of peppermint.  The shards of glass fell upon the white wool carpet, catching moonbeams as they tumbled in the tense air.  “But don’t expect me to be here when you get back!”

Bram spun around with eyes that were very much alive.  “Is that what you think?  You know nothing, Rosa!  I used to risk my life to bring peace to our country, but those days are over!  The king no longer needs the knights to fight his enemies—for he has none!  You think I push you aside for some kind of self-aggrandizement, or to keep the glory for myself?  Bah!  I distance myself to protect you from the shame of what I do!”

He gripped the latch and unhinged the entire door from its frame.  His strength shattered the old wood, causing splinters to rain upon the wool carpet.  Alongside the glittery shards of glass from the perfume bottle, the slivers of wood seemed complementary—as if the room’s decorators intended for them to be together.

Rosa cringed at the act of violence—a rarity for Bram outside of the battlefield.  Neither of them uttered a word, each content to stew in the fog of domestic war.  When their anger dissipated, they caught their breath and began to realize what they had done.

Having liberated his caged emotions, Bram’s face resumed its usual, unemotional state.  “I’m sorry,” he muttered with creased lips.  “I should go.”

She made her way to the doorway.  He still breathed heavily, but did not defy her movements.  She put a gentle hand on his arm, and with her other hand, turned his face toward hers.  He saw empathy in her eyes.

“I want you to look at me, and listen carefully, Bram.  I’ve stood by your side in the midst of peril, and I’d be proud to face it again.  You used put your trust in me, so all I ask is that you do it again, and tell me your story.”

He let out a deep sigh, failing to meet her gaze.  “If I had it my way, Rosie, I’d shield you from what I’ve done … but holding back now may not make a difference.”

“We can handle it together,” she assured him confidently.  He looked into her eyes and found the same courage and determination with which he had once fallen in love.  He hesitated for a moment, but Rosa's eyes narrowed, daring his convictions.

“Very well, then.  Come here.”

He led her to the bed and let his fingers softly caress her face.  He looked into her eyes and felt strength and compassion.  How he missed it ….

He started with a deep breath, and told her how he came to transport a newly appointed chancellor who carried the king’s seal, which gave him complete authority over all aspects of the mission. 

“As a knight, I’m familiar with most of the king’s staff, and though I’d never met this man, Virgil Garvey, I immediately distrusted him.  Not to mention the details of the mission were unusually vague.  The chancellor only divulged bits and pieces at a time when I pressed for them.  I learned the king had his sights set on the sunstone of Minoa—and for some reason, it was important enough to send us to get it.”

Rosa wore a look of intense concentration.  He knew her well enough to know that she calculated inference from his words, and was quite good at picking up subtleties.  He continued.

“We followed Virgil’s plan until we gained entry to the meditation chamber of the Minoan temple.  He had originally explained that he intended to barter for the sunstone, but instead of opening with negotiations, he began by making threats.  Of course, I wanted no part in this, but he’s an accomplished black wizard.  He cast a powerful spell of compulsionthat forced me and my men to bend to his will.  I tried to resist, but I had to watch as my own men slaughtered the innocent Minoan priests until the Elder exposed himself.”

Rosa wore a look of shock.  “All of this for the sunstone?”

He nodded.  “I suspected treachery from the beginning, and should not have allowed Virgil to usurp my command.  As captain, I’m responsible for what happened.” 

“Bram, no one can blame you,” she interjected.  “There’s no way for someone untrained in the Arts to avoid that kind of magic.  Though, I must say I’m surprised to hear that a mere chancellor has reached such an accomplished level of mastery.  Compulsion is a complex Art, and it’s banned in most of the world.  If the Conclave found out—”

“I know how the wizard community feels about this magic, which was why I’d intended to report this to the king.  I expected Richard to condemn this dishonorable conduct, but I was wrong.  When we returned, he denied me entrance to the throne room in order to speak to Virgil alone.  I entered later, prepared to leverage my personal history and record of credibility, but it turns out he and Virgil had been colluding all along.”

Bram explained all that had transpired in the throne room, including Virgil’s new role as First Advisor.  Her face turned grim the moment as she realized the extent of Virgil’s involvement.  Her eyes went even wider when Bram described the demonstration of the sunstone’s powers.

“So King Richard, with no training in wizardry except for Virgil’s instructions, used the sunstone’s power to command the weather?  There are perhaps only a few black wizards in the world with the knowledge to do this!”

“You should have seen it, Rosa.  The lightning came down from the sky and incinerated a two hundred year old oak in mere seconds.”

“Such power is beyond known wizardry,” she admitted.  “How is it possible that no one else has unlocked these powers?”

Bram shook his head.  “I don’t know … they didn’t explain how they discovered the sunstone’s secrets, only that Virgil was the source.  That’s why the king promoted him to the country’s top executive position.”

Rosa sighed.  “So all that happened at the banquet—the festivities, the toasting, the speeches—it was all staged?”

“That’s right.  King Richard is an expert at playing politics, and he didn’t want public opinion to sympathize with Minoa.  Tonight, he commemorated the attack, and now his court has shared in the accolades.  None of them would dare to turn against him now, even if the truth were to come out.  They would be seen as hypocrites, and it would destroy them.  They’ll have no choice but to remain his accomplices.”

“Then what can we do?  Surely you won’t consider going on your mission after all this?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Rosa.  I stood against Virgil, and now he’s cast doubt on my loyalty.  I must complete this mission to prove my fealty to the king.  He’s asked me to travel to the mountain valley of Ur, and assassinate the tribal chief.”

Rosa let out an exasperated breath.  “You can’t be serious!  After slaying innocent Minoans, the king now wants you to attack the Ur tribe?  What threat does Richard have to fear from them?”

“He claims the tribes are responsible for the increased spawn activity.”

“But that’s nonsense—spawn are a global threat.  Besides, the Ur tribe has lived in the mountains in timid seclusion for centuries.  They would be crazy to attack Angkor, even if they did harbor ill feelings.”

“I know, Rosa.  I’m not sure I believe it myself, but there are some connections.  Right around the same time spawn were sighted during the War, we started to notice the appearance of fog around the Ur valley.  Richard believes they’ve created this cloud as a protective measure, in response to our growing power.  You know there have been rumors for many years that they can summon spawn to fight by their sides.  If left unchecked, they could become a real threat.”

“So you’re convinced you need to follow through with it?” she asked.

He nodded.  “If I lead the mission, then I’ll be able to see for myself.  If nothing else, it’ll get the king to trust me again.  Maybe then I can speak with him on a more personal level, and stop him from putting his trust in Virgil Garvey.  I don’t believe for a moment that Virgil is acting in Angkor’s best interests.”

“Wait—you said that you will lead the mission?  Then others will be with you?”

“The king appointed a guide to lead me through the mountains.  It’s my old friend, Kane Harding.”

“The same man you grew up with?”

Bram smiled.  “Yes, the very same.  I haven’t heard from him in nearly ten years, but I think we can trust him, Rosa.  We’ve been friends a long time, and between our skills as Gnostic Knight and Templar, we should have no problem completing the mission and coming home safely.”

“Is there any other way?”

Bram sighed heavily.  “I see no other choice.  I’ll try to avoid actual bloodshed, but I must see how it plays out.  Obviously, the sunstones contain an enormous amount of power, and if they fall into the wrong hands, we’ll all be at great risk.  As I said before, I don’t think Virgil’s acting in the king’s best interests.  I need to get closer to His Majesty to understand what I’m up against.”

“Then let me to accompany you,” she pleaded.  “I can still cast white magic as well as ever.”

“Rosa, I’m sorry, but it’s impossible.  The king can’t know I’ve told you this—for your own safety.”

“But surely there’s some way I can help.  If not with you personally, then allow me to research more about Virgil Garvey.”

Bram thought about the benefit of getting more information.  Rosa was very resourceful, and he needed to give her more credit.  “Just be careful, okay?  If he finds out you’re snooping, your life will be in danger.  Remember that no one knows we’ve talked.  The maid believes I intend to leave in anger.  Keep up the act and no one will suspect.  Servants’ stories spread fast.  If they believe you to be ignorant of the truth, it’ll protect you until I return.  Also, don’t speak to anyone you don’t trust with your life.  I don’t know who else is involved.”

Rosa made an additional point.  “If Virgil learned how to unlock the sunstones’ powers, the information must have come from somewhere.  The Archives is a likely place to start.  I might be able to get special access.”

“I don’t see how you’d find anything of value in that old library.  Plus, you’d risk alerting others to the fact that you’re searching for something.”

“The Archives is more than a mere library,” she explained.  “Some of the records date back almost a thousand years ago.  In building its assets, wizards acquired texts that no one has read in generations—or even in tens of generations.  I have nothing to lose by looking, and I promise to be careful.”

Bram nodded.  “I trust that you’re capable, but please be discreet.”

“I will, my love,” she told him as she kissed him on the lips.  Her warm caress filled him with joy and relief.

They had their plan, steeled in their assurance that they could face whatever dangers the next day would bring.  Overcome in the heat of the moment, Rosa and Bram made love, feeling closer than they had been since the War’s end.

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