A dense fog rolled into Ennora in the middle of the night. It was thick enough to obscure the view between buildings, what wasn't already made difficult to see by the cover of night. Sounds of scratching against the ground awoke Aiden, who broke out of his sleep in a cold sweat. It wasn't the first time, and he initially thought it was a dream. Then he heard it again. The scratching became louder, giving way to bumps and creaks as they got even closer. Getting up and looking out the window, he could see a figure he couldn't quite make out entirely. He noted the dark, riveted armor of the figure, a red ruby the size of a human fist embedded within it from the front. It was wearing a helmet without a face guard, and Aiden could barely make out the facial features of the man standing there. The figure held up a hand to his face, illuminating the features for a split second.
Captain Janus? He thought. It can't be. He was killed when Belraven fell. Just then, a clothed figure brushed by the window with all speed. He dropped to the floor as quietly as a mouse, crawling back over to his wife who was sleeping soundly amid the goings on. Then he heard voices outside. At first, he couldn't understand a bit of the language they were speaking as it was foreign to him. Then a voice came about that he knew well, and he spoke his own words in the common tongue. “It isn't worth it, my minions. This little village has nothing to offer us. Just the last bastion of elves. Nothing really to concern ourselves with.”
“But Xanth,” one of the figures rasped, “what will Nal'tha think?”
“She cares not for hapless havens. The remains of the kingdoms are our primary concern, particularly the one they call 'Firebrand'. He is to be taken alive. The rest you may have your way with.”
“What of the village, sir?”
“Burning it seems so out of fashion. Lay poison on their food and water sources. Let nature ravage the rest.”
Aiden lay frozen as he watched the windows and the front door, waiting for what may come. He carefully peered out the window, to see the large armored figure peering in through it. Satisfied that he saw nothing, the king came to a sigh of relief as he noticed the sounds and scrapes move further away. Still a cold chill crept up his spine as he tried to take in everything he just heard. He wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead, attempting to contemplate just how close to death he really was. As he turned away from the window, he could see the veil of lit torches disappear into the distance. All that was left now was the time for him to think – about life, death, and perhaps his next move. Out of it all, there was only a single thought occupying his mind above all the rest. Captain Janus is now called Xanth? What in the heavens is happening here?
A hand brushed against Aiden's shoulder. He jumped real fast, turning around to notice that it was only Vingulfen, who was up and heard everything. “Get everyone up, now,” he whispered, “it is just as I've feared.”
“What?” Aiden fired back.
“Darkness is on the move,” the elf wizard said, “if Captain Janus has been reanimated into this new figure, I fear that whatever or whoever may have done it isn't far behind. But the name Nal'tha, that name doesn't seem familiar at all.”
“Uthrieum?” Aiden quizzed.
“I don't know, but whatever it is, it isn't friendly, it looks like it has its sights set on your kingdom, and more specifically you.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don't know, but I wouldn't want to be the one hanging around to find out.”
The two of them woke the others out of their sleep. It was rather difficult for them, given that they hadn't attained much sleep in the past few days. Roderick and Valia were still reeling from standing watch at the campsite, whereas Abigail had ridden with Lotus and Symon into the dark hours before bedding down for a few herself. Not a one of them was particularly ready to go on the move again. Aiden himself was feeling a natural drowsiness beginning to kick in. He'd only been asleep for a couple of hours, as he was having issues just getting himself to slip into steady subconsciousness. His memories simply wouldn't allow him to get the rest he needed. As a result, he didn't think he had the aptitude to concentrate on defensive spells in the event that they should be attacked. Luckily, Vingulfen was there to help them.
“Whatever the case,” Roderick murmured, “we should get back to Tyr. We'll use the cover of night to travel amid the plains. We should hit the outskirts of the forest come morning if we make as much haste as possible. After we're in the woods, it'll be hard for this Xanth or anyone else to track us.”
Rummaging through his things amongst the nightstand, Vingulfen reached down further to find a small box. It was fashioned by his own hand with exquisite elf markings, protected only by an arcane lock tied to his own life force. As he pulled it out, it shimmered faintly in the dim moonlight. His hands only shook at the prospect of what he was holding. Even though it was an Uthrieum artifact sealed by the tenants of his own magic, Vin was still hesitant to do anything hasty with it. Of anyone present, he knew the pretenses of mishandling a token of darkness. Even with the seal, he knew that if the right opportunities presented themselves, not even his own magic could hold back what the item was capable of.
“That's it?” Aiden asked, getting a good look at the box in the dark.
“Yes, but we must be very careful with it,” Vingulfen said, “if you remember from your previous incursion with its gnomish caretaker, the device is primed and there's nothing I could do within my own powers to separate the key from its housing on the device. The only thing I could muster was to place a magical lock on this cube, to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Still, if the right conditions come together, the device will activate itself automatically, so this must be kept safe at all costs, even if it means our lives.”
Aiden was the first outside. He immediately looked around to see if anyone was within a decent distance of the village. By that time, he couldn't make out a single soul, undead or alive. It seemed that Xanth, or whoever he was, had moved on. Vingulfen patted the man on the back. “We're all extremely lucky,” he whispered, “those guys were around for quite a bit. I almost thought we'd be in a fight for sure.”
The king depressed his fingers sharply against his head, falling to the ground in a ball almost instantaneously. Abigail went to cover up her husband quickly, noticing in the faint blackness his eyes burn with pain. It was so much that he could barely let out the sound of his voice. Only the high pitched tone of his natural echo sensors burst forth. Then she saw a bit of red oozing from his nose. It made a steady stream onto the ground before he felt the pain sharply subside. Hyperventilating, he began to cough and wheeze violently, spattering blood on the ground before him. His eyes watered profusely as he began to whimper and sob. In the distance, Vingulfen noticed the illumination of something green. He shot out a burst of force from his hand toward it, instantly vaporizing whatever figure was standing there. The green light then seemed to fade away slowly, but not before the wizard was able to lift it up with telekinetic powers. He held it there, wrapping a piece of cloth around it tightly, as if to bind the object. He took it back over to the few now gathered around Aiden, still reeling from the painful blow to his mind.
“A psionic crystal,” the elf said, “I don't know what its purpose was, but whatever the case, whoever is looking for you is getting closer. It seems they're just waiting for the right moment to pounce.”
“I can't make anything out. I can barely see in front of me.” the king said, a light yelp coming from his voice. The ability to see clearly was replaced with a throbbing pain whenever he tried to activate his sonar senses. He was careful not to try too hard, as his nerves could not the demands he was making of them. If he tried any harder to activate his night vision, he risked the permanent loss of his echolocation abilities.
“Whatever it was must have damaged your natural ability to see in the dark, Aiden. This crystal doesn't appear to have the power to outright destroy it, which is why you must have gone into immense pain. If the nerve endings had been completely severed, you wouldn't be able to echo-locate at all. It appears your organs will heal, but it'll have to happen naturally.”
Abigail kept a tight grip around Aiden as he stood up, wiping the blood from his nose. “Dammit!” He cried for a moment, wanting desperately to turn away in shame. He felt the same way as he initially did when he set foot on Gaia for the first time. It was the same feeling of helplessness and fear that stopped him in his tracks. In all of it, he only saw his wife standing before him, brushing his hair back softly.
“Look at me,” the queen said, “I can barely make you out, but you're still good looking, if that counts.”
He chuckled with a renewed sense of spirit, parting from her to mount on his horse. “Back to Tyr, everyone,” he said, as Vingulfen mounted behind him. “We have some business to take care of.”
The ride back to the kingdom was rather uneventful and slow at first. The party had to tread carefully in the dark over the flat, grassy plains. The only thing they had at their advantage was the dark, and it became ever the more cumbersome because of the damage done to Aiden. Fortunately, Vingulfen's ability to see in the dark, while not as advanced, had to suffice. He took the lead, swapping with Aiden on his own horse, whose head was still throbbing with pain from the attack. Abigail took up position just a few feet away from her husband, with Valia and Roderick bringing up the rear.
The strange scent in the air, the smell of darkness and ozone were the only things keeping them company as they made their way north. Outside of the faint moonlight dotting the landscape and the rustle of horses' footsteps, there was no other sound to be heard amidst the plains. It was strange for the entire party, Roderick in particular. Normally there would be various creatures out roaming the night plains, as he knew intimately from his hunting experiences. This time, however, was different. It was just another brick to put up on the wall of strange happenings. Something must have been up, if not Xanth having scared every creature away.
After hours of being on the trail, they were all succumbing to weariness brought on by a lack of rest. Each of them responded to it in his or her own way, save the gray elf, who was still on the lookout for anything that might jump out at them. He slowed as they reached the edge of the forest, the sun only about an hour or so away from coming up over the horizon. He looked back at the rest of them, all with fairly blank stairs and pale faces. “Just about another fifteen minutes or so and we'll be buried enough in the forest to set up camp. I'll be sure to stand watch while the rest of you sleep.”
Dismounting from their horses, the whole of the party lazily set up camp. They skipped setting up the tent this time, given the fine cover of trees all around them. Even bedrolls were set up haphazardly, with each of the royal company falling fast asleep on the tops of the sleeping bags. Vingulfen was careful not to set up more than a dim light for some overnight writing of his chronicle. It was the only thing he could do to keep himself occupied in the wake of standing watch.
* * *
Lord Xanth stood watch as his army decimated and desecrated the city of Tyr. He was at the main gate, overlooking the whole of the city with the large manor house in the middle. In the distance he could see a fountain, still spurting water from its central fixture and only illuminated by the several fires alight from the burning structures surrounding him. He could feel the heat whip across his face wildly as he proceeded forth, his blade drawn and ready to slay any who prepared to stand before him. As he took more steps forward, he lamented on what it might be like to capture the young Aiden Firebrand, the only one of the massive group of heroes he took interest in. He remembered back to the time he was a living soul, as one Captain Janus who had been interested in airships. He remembered the look on the young Aiden's face, and he could not help the fact that he was now looking back at that face with an uncontrolled hatred, knowing full well that he was the only thing standing in between him and his lover, Nal'tha.
Taking a few more steps forward, a brilliant flash of light exploded before him. It was almost enough to push him back as the force of the explosion seared pieces of dead tissue from his face. Off to the right, he noticed a small figure putting his hands up in defense, orbs of light dancing wildly around his wrists as they waited for their command from him to strike. Leaping forth, Xanth raised his blade and crashed it forth to the ground, narrowly missing his opponent by a hair, but catching some of his robe instead. It was shredded immediately, the threads dangling like loose fibers. The young wizard then shot the rest of his payload at Xanth, which knocked him back a few feet in a daze. It was just enough time to get away.
A loud roar came from the man in black armor, the red ruby at his chest beginning to glow a deep red. The wizard, Lotus, only caught a glimpse of it before slamming the door shut, huddling close to his family. Only moments later, the sharp blade crashed through the house, making one effortless, clean slice across the room. The edge of the knife caught his wife and young son, severing vital organs in the process. They fell immediately from where they stood, the mage watching as his family became engorged in a pool of their own blood. The only thing he could think of was how merciful the killing was for them, as he knew it would not be the same for him. As he stood over the dead bodies, he began to chant for a ball of flame to surge forth and consume the man of darkness before him. It was not enough time. Xanth thrust his sword forward into Lotus, cleaving right through him, the end of the blade clasping to a wood panel at Lotus' back. For a moment, the two of them locked eyes, the searing green from the mage's knowing that his opponent got the best of him. The blackness of Xanth's showed virtually nothing, neither the exuberance of victory nor remorse for his actions. As Lotus' body slid off the sword, the black knight only watched the few drops of blood leave his blade before sheathing it again, turning his attention toward the manor house.
From the vantage point of the only lasting tower, Ulf could see the fiendish things making their way with the inhabitants of the city. He was fairly confident that the ravagers could not make out the sturdy structure in the distance. He immediately rallied those among him to prepare for defense. To the rest of them, they though it meant to get ready for battle, but for him, he was waiting for a moment just like this one. He stood there overlooking the fires engulfing the city, only thinking of all the people who were now paying with their lives. The anger that welled up within him was far beyond that of any man, and he began to concentrate and channel the energy into a string of strange, archaic words. Even he wasn't sure that it would work, but to his amazement, everything else around the lot of them became nothing more than a swirly image. The guards of the Tower watched in amazement as they could see the floors beneath them slowly going translucent. From the height they were standing at, they could see the base of the structure and all of the rooms going up and down from that point.
With lasting beads of sweat running down his face, Ulf completed the spell with deep, heaving breaths. He collapsed almost instantaneously, feeling a bit of his life force drained in the same. A few guards rushed to his aid. He put his hands up, letting them know he was okay, then propping himself up on his knees. “I think I've done it everyone,” he said, “we're no longer visible to the outside world. The evil creatures won't get us now.”
Still, it was a trite painful for those of Tyr and the Tower who remained there, to sit and watch as their city, their home, their kingdom, slowly fell to the light army of the black knight Xanth. At first their thoughts centered on their king and why he wasn't there to defend them. They couldn't understand it, and as Ulf heard the whispers of those who remained, even he couldn't reveal what they had all discussed before the king and his entourage left for Ennora. Only minutes of listening to the common folk speak of Aiden in a derogatory sense threw him into a rage.
“Listen,” Ulf shouted, “your king left his kingdom for your protection, remember that! The only ones who shouldn't be here are the evil creatures ravaging the city. If I had known they were this close, I would have evacuated Tyr long ago. There's someone down there who has the power to subdue the senses, and he takes no prisoners, I can assure you that. Just think of what King Aiden and Queen Abigail are going to think when they return to this place.”
At that moment, a loud cry erupted from the center of the city. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the blackness of the armored figure grow stronger. As small as he was from a distance, he was the only one worthy of notice. A swath of black and red appeared around him, spinning ever faster as the seconds ticked by. Evermore it grew until it consumed everything in a fixed radius. Then, before anyone could let out a simple gasp, the figure exploded, leaving the rest of his army lifeless in and instant. They collapsed from where they stood, the undead things disappearing into dust before the eyes of those who survived the night.
Scurry away while you can, young Aiden. Death will smile upon you soon. They were the only words Ulf could hear as the hungry fires in the city consumed about every last thing they could. The manor house, or what was left of it, lay in a heap of rubble. As Ulf sifted through the dust and ash, he was able to recover a leather-bound book with charred edges. It bore Aiden's crest, along with the inscription “A. Firebrand” engraved neatly into the front cover. As he sifted through the pages, he quickly came to the conclusion that it was Aiden's personal diary. Apart from bits and pieces of royal furniture, it was the only thing out of the manor house that remained intact.
A guard was hyperventilating as he approached Ulf from his left. “Sir, there are bodies everywhere. What are we to do?”
“Locate whatever you can and build sturdy pyres around the bodies. We'll burn them in place.”
There was only one house seemingly undamaged from the flames. From a distance, however, it looked like it had been smashed in from the outside. As Ulf approached it, he quickly came to surmise that it was the residence of his assistant, Lotus. Clamoring over the piles of debris, he took one quick look inside and noticed three bodies nestled up against the wall, next to the dining table. The young Lotus lay lifelessly slumped over the corpses of his wife and child. Dried, curdled blood thickened in layers around the three of them. At that moment, the Magus could do nothing but drop to his knees and begin to cry over his ultimate loss. He came to know Lotus as a son, and groomed him as such. Of his wife and child, they seemed the closest thing he had to family since the end of the Uthrieum war.
“Why?” He cried. “Why them?”
* * *
From a distance, Roderick noticed light puffs of black smoke coming from the direction of Tyr. The feeling that welled up within him was one for the worst. He could not come to grips with himself that someone could have laid waste to the city. He gathered among the rest of his group and pointed in the direction of their kingdom. The only one of them who was not all surprised was the gray elf himself.
“I sense a great sadness ahead,” he said, “I don't know if you have much of a kingdom left, Aiden. I think the enemy might have beat us to the punch.”
Aiden and Abigail could only gaze at the smoke in horror. They both froze on their horses as they sat, watching the air intermingle with what they could only conclude was the charred remains of their city. Of all the thing that Aiden had been through in the past few weeks, the feeling this moment gave him was the worst. He could blame himself for leaving his father again and again, but the thought that his kingdom now lay in smote ruin, that was too much to bear. His immediate thoughts went to his people and how he should have been there to confront the forces of those who opposed him. He then remembered the strong, shadowy figure from the night before, the one that resembled his former Tower captain. In that moment, his rage went unchecked. He spurred his horse and charged forward to the city. The others did the only thing they could – followed suit.
It was a scene of utter devastation as Aiden and his royal contingent returned to Tyr. All of them knew they couldn't break down in tears at what they saw. Going emotional was not an option, as they all knew what it would do to their objectivity. The king himself even sat there on his mount, with nothing but a blank, lifeless stare on his face. It was the first time the look ever came upon him. Before he left, the city was nearly completed in its rebuild after the war. Now, as he looked upon the smoldering fires and ashes of what remained, he could not bring himself to think competently on the matter. The only one who was in any capacity to do so was his good friend from Ennora. At that, Vingulfen raised his hand.
“Aiden,” he said, staring straight into the King's now burning cerulean eyes. “I need you to stay with me right now. I need you to put all of this out of your head... right now. Do not waste yourself in an emotional rage, my friend. It won't help anyone, least of all you, and it won't do anything to bring back the dead. If there was any time your people needed you, it's now. And though I'm not technically one of your own, you can consider me as one from here on out.”
Abigail leaned up next to Aiden. She was in tears, trying desperately to hold back her emotions at what she was seeing. Her people, her town, her home, what was once there was now nothing before her eyes. What was she going to do? What would her father have done had it happened to him? Part of her wanted to blame her husband for leaving, but she knew very well that it wasn't his fault. For all she knew, had they been there when whatever it was came through, they might as well be lying dead with the rest of their folk.
The five of the royal party dismounted from their horses, walking past what remained of the outer wall and into the inner city. From a distance, the aging Ulf saw them coming and raced to them immediately. The king noticed that he was carrying a familiar item under his arm. The Magus stood there in silence. There was so much to say, but neither party knew where to begin.
“I found this in the heap of the manor,” he said, “it's the only thing I could find completely intact.” Ulf handed Aiden his dairy, brushing off the few ashes remaining on the front cover.
“What happened here?” Aiden pressed firmly, his tone rapidly changing from one of surprise to one of disgust. “Who the hell did this and why didn't you stop it?!”
“That's a long story, sir.” Ulf said, “There was nothing we could do as the enemy and his army of undead came into the city, laying waste to it immediately. They gave no warning as they killed everyone they came in contact with. Then the torches went in and the city was engulfed by a magnificent orange glow. The only reason we survived was due to my invisibility spell. It drained a bit from me, but I was able to render the entire tower incorporeal, along with everyone inside. I barely pulled it off. I thought I was going to die, but I was more than pleasantly surprised when it all worked out... after bringing myself back to a state of coherence.”
“Was there a defined leader?”
Ulf nodded. “He was a black armored figure. A red ruby was pressed firmly into his chest plate.”
At the mere mention of it, the king gasped. “That's Captain Janus! But they didn't call him Janus when they came through Ennora. They called him Xanth. I remember the name distinctly.”
“That's hard to believe,” the Magus puzzled, “Janus was killed in the assault on Belraven. How could it possibly be him?”
“I don't know, but of what I could see last night, it was definitely him. If he was truly the one who did this to my city, my people, I will see to it that he draws his last breath with a fireball being shoved down his throat... after I break his damned spine!” He paused for a moment, taking in all he could from his vantage point. He set his eyes on firmly on the charred remains of the house of Lotus. It was the only recognizable structure still standing, as well as a monument to the dead that now littered the open landscape.
“What of your boyish mage, Ulf? Did he make it out alive?” A quick look into the Magus' eyes, only apart from a slight nod confirmed what Aiden must have already known. It was especially hard news to take, not because of Lotus or his wife, but the little boy who tugged on his robe when he first arrived into Tyr. The little boy was six then, with soft green eyes and a smile that would melt anyone's heart. “Jarrett,” Aiden whispered, “I'm sorry I wasn't there when you needed me most.” The young lad was the only child in Tyr to whom Aiden took to with a sense of fondness, like he was his own father. It was just another slap in the face to him, just another reminder of how far away Aiden was from his own family, his own father, his former home. To think that it was Xanth, or Captain Janus, who pulled off such an attack, and who would mercilessly slay a young boy without a care only sought to enrage Aiden even further. He took two steps toward the house before Ulf grabbed at his arm.
“You don't want to see them, sir. I already wept enough as it was for them. The only thing we can do now is give them the funeral they deserve in the wake of this madness, this homicide.” The Magus nodded to a guard standing at the edge of the porch, where the only remaining window sill met with the sturdiest part of the structure. Without hesitation, the man threw a lit torch into the house, immediately setting it alight. The group could only stand there and take in the emotional display, with only the feeling of searing heat being blown their way by the light breeze amid their faces.
“What are we going to do now, Aiden? Our kingdom, our home, everything we had here, it's gone.” Abigail was almost to the point of hysteria as she said the words, her husband comforting her through every agonizing second. He then peered over to Vingulfen, who produced the box with the artifact and handed it to the Magus. Ulf stood there, not sure whether to be amazed, excited, or neither. He gave the object a quick once-over, careful not to open it in front of the party.
“There's really only one thing you can do at this point, Highness,” Ulf said, “let me pull off one of my last tricks and open up this portal to Earth. Your home here might be lost, but there might be something for you on Aiden's home world. It might be the better for both of you. To the rest of you, I cannot say whether following them through the portal would be the wisest choice. Once you go through, you might not be able to make it back. I'll do what I can to keep the dimensional gate open as long as possible, but the moment I sniff Xanth or any of his cronies, I'll have to close it up to prevent anything else from getting to the other side. There's no guarantee I can open it again after that.”
“So a one way trip?” Aiden mused. “I can live with that. I can't say the same for you Abby, but I'd have to agree with Ulf on this one. You might be better off coming with me. Everything we've built here is no longer, and I won't risk you or our baby to Xanth and his minions.”
Abigail nodded. “I have no choice, baby. It's not something I welcome entirely with open arms, but I do get this of all else – now it's your turn, sweetie. I brought you into my home on this world. Now you'll have to do the same with me on yours.”
“If we find my father, I'm sure he'll be more than happy to set you up. I don't know though. As fond as my memories are of him, a lot can change in a man after two years. It's very possible he could have moved on and started another family after I disappeared. I don't expect him to have held onto hope for this long. It's possible, but I fear very unlikely.”
Ulf motioned his hands. “Come,” he said, “all of you must be extremely exhausted after all this. I want you guys to get some rest while I work on bringing this portal back to life. It's going to take a while, so best to make the most of the time that way. We can grieve later for our losses. Right now we have a job to do. I just hope all of this is worth it, your Majesty. Your world may have to become a new home for us all.”
Aiden nodded. “Let's go. I've seen enough death and destruction for one day.”