“The situation has become critical,” stated a willowy, tan-skinned woman (known to be Imber of the Aquas), as she stood erect before Magus and Daevin.
As Magus could tell straightaway, Ekon and Imber were antipodal not just in natural elements, but also in physical appearance and disposition. While Ekon was large-muscled, hardheaded, and unapologetically blunt, Imber was slim and toned, soft-spoken, and patient. She, like Dayla, had freely welcomed the Crown Prince of Eurovia within her borders, despite their affiliation with the Terrathians. Ekon’s approval to enter Aqua territory was only gained when Magus reminded him that they were in fact in a truce with the Aquas (“Not that we really should have needed his permission,” Magus grumbled, “We are free Eurovian citizens after all”).
“Isn’t the situation always critical with the Aethers and Terrathians?” commented Magus in response to Imber’s grave statement.
“The Aethers have begun to accuse us of raiding their food stores, and some of my Aquas are blaming the Terrathians, ” informed Imber.
“Are you sure none of the Aquas are responsible for it?” asked Daevin, who prepared for a harsh rebuttal from Imber.
To his surprise, Imber didn’t snap at him, but instead shook her head.
“We have had a surplus of food in the valley,” explained Imber. “I don’t see any logical reason for any Aquas stealing food, unless it’s to try to provoke war again. We do have people like that within our midst.”
“Well if any Aquas did do it, I’ll bet it’s the ones who are accusing the Terrathians,” said Daevin.
“That has occurred to me as well,” replied Imber. “The issue is that it’s their word against the Aethers’ and the Terrathians.’ Nothing odd has been reported from the inventory, and I need hard evidence in order to act against anyone.”
“So what do you want us to do?” inquired Magus.
“Investigate,” declared Imber. “Find out who really is doing this, and we can continue the truce.”
“All right,” agreed Magus and Daevin.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” said Imber. “Do you need help getting down?”
Daevin exclaimed “Yes!” and the same time Magus said “No,” which caused Daevin to look enviously at Magus. The reason for this exchange was that Imber’s hut was on one of the ledges of a cliff that was split by a powerful waterfall (the thundering sound of which kept Daevin ill at ease throughout the meeting). Magus could get down with the aid of his staff, which was teasingly termed “the magic stick” by Jack, but Daevin had to climb onto Imber’s back while she ran down the waterfall. He was fleetingly reminded of riding on Ashtalon’s back as they maneuvered Whispering Timberland for the last time. The painful thought couldn’t manage a strong enough grip on his mind when the rush of the wind, the laughter of Aqua children playing around him, and the delightful spray of crystalline water distracted him—but that was really for the better.
He and Magus confidentially told their comrades what they had discussed with Imber as soon as they returned. In between training classes, they would go downstairs to check the Terrathian inventory, or mingle with Terrathians or Aquas to probe for answers about the raiding of the Aethers. Joanne asked Camira for an update, but all that Camira knew was that more and more food was disappearing and the head of the Aethers was becoming agitated. It wasn’t until Lizzie, Daevin and Zwinkie wandered onto Aether territory that they discovered something worthwhile. They had decided to take a walk around the cluster of oak trees that often served as a playground for the Aether children, but that day many of the teenage Aethers were there instead.
Zwinkie, as usual, attracted every person within a ten-foot radius (which increased to a twenty-foot radius once an ample-sized crowd surrounded him). It reminded Lizzie of how it always took her an hour for her to take her puppy for his morning pee due to the passerby that would stop, chat, and pet him. The Aethers cooed at the piffle (who, despite his bashfulness, really enjoyed the attention), until a loud caw ripped the air. The Aethers gasped and exclaimed “He’s here!” before running towards a rainbow-colored bird that flew ahead of them. Lizzie and Daevin glanced at each other before grabbing Zwinkie and rushing after the Aethers. The bird, which was as large as a bald eagle, alighted on the crest of a green hill outside of the haven of oaks and waited for the Aethers to gather around. The size of the crowd caused the bird to ruffle its feathers and to adopt an almost smug look on its face. Daevin immediately frowned and pursed his lips upon seeing this, but he wouldn’t say anything quite yet.
“What’s the news on the Terrathians and Aquas?” asked one of the Aethers
“I have flown from horizon to horizon,” began the bird in a grand voice, “and I have seen the Viridis Valley infested with the pesky vermin. A group of Terrathians in particular were carrying sacks on their backs—suspiciously from the direction of your stores.”
“I knew it!” screamed many of the Aethers at once.
“It’s not just the Aquas taking our stuff now,” declared a female Aether.
The bird flapped its wings and cawed several times to return the attention of the easily excited Aether youths to itself.
“Now, now, I have done my work,” reminded the bird. “Where is my payment?”
Fistfuls of gold coins were thrown at the bird’s talons from many directions, and they glimmered with the reflection of the sunlight. Daevin focused on the bird in the midst of the shower of gold, and he snarled when the bird’s eyes darkened into blackness and wisps of gray smoke rose from its talons and its ruffled feathers. Only Daevin was able to see the smoke. Daevin unsheathed his sword and, despite Lizzie’s confused calls, surged up the hill towards the bird. Once the bird saw Daevin, the darkness in the bird’s eyes receded into its pupils, giving way to the golden ring of its iris.
“Greetings, young man,” drawled the colorful bird. “Dressed like a Terrathian, though, I don’t know how safe you are in Aether territory.”
“No, no, he’s an honorary member of our people,” assured a youthful male Aether, who rested his elbow on Daevin’s shoulder. “As Crown Prince of Eurovia he should be. We don’t judge him for poor choices when it comes to friends… much.”
“That’s wonderful,” said the bird. “Now, Prince Daevin, would you mind lowering that metal thing in your hand?”
“I actually would mind,” responded Daevin curtly, shaking off the Aether and bringing the tip of his sword dangerously close to the bird’s red throat.
“Whoa, what’s the problem here?” questioned the Aether, coming again to Daevin’s side.
“This bird is literally oozing with black magic,” spat Daevin. “Whatever he says is a lie.”
The bird cocked its head and replied smoothly, “A mighty accusation. How do you know so well the look of black magic?”
There was a hint of accusation in the bird’s retort, a thorn that threatened to break the skin of Daevin’s confidence. Daevin’s sword dropped down until its point stabbed the turf at the bird’s feet, and Daevin struggled to look it directly in the eye.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will have to resume our business later,” announced the bird.
Daevin tried to press in on the bird, but it stepped back and propelled itself into the air too quickly for him to do so. Ignoring the grumbling of the Aethers around him, Daevin stared angrily at the cunning bird until Lizzie’s hand on his shoulder returned his sight to earth.
“What was that about?” Zwinkie inquired, speaking the thoughts of all the Aethers. “How do you know that bird is associated with black magic?”
“I saw it,” asserted Daevin. “And even if I didn’t, it’s obvious that bird is just trying to start trouble for the peoples of Viridis Valley. In order to accuse the Aquas or Terrathians of doing anything, we should have solid proof, not the testimony of some strange bird that takes bribes.”
“Oh, what do you know?” said an Aether.
“Black magic,” retorted Daevin. “I’m not proud of that, but I know it. I don’t know what motives this bird has, but I know it won’t bring good news for you.”
“What, you dip your hand into the dark arts, and when you get caught you have to drag everyone else down with you?” the Aether scoffed. “Your word is no better than the bird’s according to your logic.”
Daevin swallowed his bottom lip and stepped back from the Aether.
“All I want for your people is peace,” he murmured.
“And I think that’s exactly what this bird is working against,” declared Lizzie. “If the peoples of Viridis Valley keep arguing amongst themselves, then they can’t put a united front against the Dark Lord, and he can continue to rule.”
Some of the Aethers made a start at that, but many others jeered at Lizzie and walked away.
“So you think this bird could be in league with the Dark Lord?” asked Daevin, who still winced at using such a title for Demetrius.
“Well like you said before, we need evidence before we can accuse anyone of anything. However, it is a possibility that we should keep in mind.”
Daevin nodded. “I know I will.”
A high-pitched whistle rang out, causing the Aethers to gasp and fly toward their village before Daevin could ask any questions. Zwinkie, Lizzie, and Daevin hurried to the Terrathians’ underground network, but by the time they tumbled back into the subterranean world, it was abuzz with Terrathians strapping on armor and mumbling angrily to themselves. The three friends couldn’t grab a hold of anyone willing to pause long enough to explain everything to them until they found Admon. Already he was attired with armor from his shoulders to the bottom of his feet, as well as an edged shield that had had a gold engraving of a fierce Terrathian warrior much like himself. He was putting on his helmet, which was made of leather painted dark green and which covered his entire head, save for a rectangular slit for him to see through. The worry in his green-brown eyes was evident as he told the three friends the reason why he was suiting up.
“Someone reported the use of our armor and weaponry among the Aethers and Aquas,” informed Admon. “Ekon called off the truce, and we’re going to invade their territory.”
“By any chance is that someone a very colorful bird?” questioned Daevin.
“Actually, yes,” answered Admon. “From what I understand, Ekon wanted a bird’s eye view of Viridis Valley, so he hired Claudius to get it. I think they’re still talking in the war meeting room.”
“Thank you, Admon.” Daevin moved to step away, but then turned back to look at Admon. “Are they sending you to the Aethers or Aquas?”
“Aethers,” moaned Admon. “I am bound by my warrior’s oath, so I have to go wherever they send me.”
Daevin’s hand rested on Admon’s shoulder and gave a light squeeze before letting go.
“I wish you well, friend,” stated Daevin, before he took a perplexed Lizzie and Zwinkie to Ekon.
As Admon had said, they found Ekon with Claudius while they were exchanging instructions and information about the Aquas and Aethers. When they heard the entrance of Daevin and his friends, Ekon’s face became sour and Claudius’ eyes flashed red (only Daevin caught that). With his brawny arms Ekon pushed himself up from his seat at the end of the dark wooden table, and he exhaled through his flaring nostrils. A displeased grunt crawled up his throat, while Claudius cawed sharply.
“Prince Daevin,” began Ekon, “it would do you well to stay out of this conflict. You can take your friends to anywhere you like, so long as you don’t get involved.”
“No, I can’t do that,” refused Daevin, “because your little bird friend is feeding you lies and I need to stop it. I saw this same bird telling Aethers that the Terrathians have been stealing their food.”
“Nonsense, the Aquas have been doing that,” dismissed Ekon. “They’ve always been thieves.”
“No, Mr. Ekon, Daevin’s telling the truth!” exclaimed Lizzie. “The Aethers have been paying them to do their spying.”
“What proof do you have?” demanded Claudius.
“Our word,” asserted Daevin.
“Don’t you trust us, Ekon?” asked Zwinkie.
“Normally I do,” Ekon answered, “but I know you and your friends are willing to say or do anything to stop war… even if it is merited.”
“It’s not merited,” Daevin contradicted.
“Listen, you may be the Crown Prince, but this is my war,” stated Ekon. “If you want to stay out, then stay out. If you want to fight, then fight for us.” Ekon turned to the bird, which had been glaring at Daevin. “Come, Claudius.”
After Ekon and Claudius left, Lizzie and Zwinkie looked expectantly at Daevin.
“What should we do now?” asked Zwinkie.
“Perhaps we should look for Joanne and the rest of them,” suggested Lizzie.
Daevin nodded. “We’ll ask what they want to do.”
When everyone finally found each other, most of the underground system had been cleared of Terrathian fighters and Claudius had long since disappeared.
“There’s nothing we can do at this point,” sighed Magus. “The Terrathians won’t listen to us, and I doubt the Aethers or Aquas will either.”
“What happens if one group wins—totally and completely wins?” asked Jack.
“Presumably that group gets the entire Viridis Valley,” answered Magus. “No one group has ever been able to hold victory for long, though.”
“So the cycle continues and Viridis Valley continues to be filled with the dead,” said Mia.
“Uh, not technically,” responded Magus. “When these people die, they become the elements they were born from. No bodies, just natural elements.”
“Well that’s… kind of sad,” commented Lizzie.
“Actually, at least in the Terrathians’ case, they like the idea that their ancestors are still part of the world around them,” informed Joanne, who had learned that fact from Admon.
“This is beside the point,” said Daevin. “I can’t bear the thought of staying behind and doing nothing, but I can’t fight against any of my friends on the battlefield either. Are there any other options?”
“The way I see it, there is only thing we can do that might do some good,” declared Magus.
“What is it?” asked Mia.
Magus’ jaw tightened. “Kill that bird.”