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Stars Riddle

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Once, long ago, the winds blew across a savage plain. Cracks pitted the ground where no plants could grow. The land was desolate but the wind still blew strong. Wind brought change and change brought hope. The desolate world needed something new and every one watched and waited to see what the wind would bring. Caidan of Anbar met the man who would change his life on the docks of Taim. The ships' sails bellowed in the wind and gulls called from the sky.

Fantasy / Adventure
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

Once, long ago, the winds blew across a savage plain. Cracks pitted the ground where no plants could grow. The land was desolate but the wind still blew strong. Wind brought change and change brought hope. The desolate world needed something new and every one watched and waited to see what the wind would bring.

Caidan of Anbar met the man who would change his life on the docks of Taim. The ships’ sails bellowed in the wind and gulls called from the sky. The day looked peaceful and harmonious when Caidan sat down to breakfast.

Caidan had his head in his hands. He had spent the night celebrating his sister’s marriage and his head still rang from too much beer and wine. Caidan felt the cooling breazes from the docks ruffle his hair. The wind made his feel margonally better. Trella’s cooking would have made his feel better still but the house was not a blaze with life yet.

Caidan was glad for a few hours to get his barings before the questions started... He knew they were coming but he wanted to enjoy this peaceful breaze for as long as he could. His hangover was fading as the minutes passed. The headaches were gone and the day seemed promising.

“Ah, my lord,” a woman’s high-pitched voice called from the stareway. “There you be. I’ll be up right with rolls and eggs, my lord.”

“Thank you, Trella,” Caidan called back.

He was already beginning to miss the quiet peace but he was looking foreward to Trella’s cooking. She had been with his family as long as he would remember. She had practically helped raise Caidan and his sister, Elsbeth. Trella used her many years of service to her advantage and took as many liberaties as she could. Still, she was a good cook!

“So sorry that it took so long, my lord,” Trella said, placing dishes of food before him. “You must eat up and keep your strength, my lord. The traders will be hear later today to hear your offers.”

“Tallon will take care of that,” Caidan assured her.

If Trella was Caidan’s other mother, than Donal Tallon was the father. The man had taught Caidan how to hunt and fish. Caidan knew that Master Tallon was always ready to listen if Caidan needed to talk. Tallon took even more liberaties than Trella did.

“You’ll ecuse my sayin, my lord, but Donal Tallon is too forward,” Trella decided. “He does not behave propper-like.”

Caidan smiled before saying, “I don’t think any member of my household behaves in a proper fashion.”

“Ohh,” Trella moaned. “How you tease, my lord. Things would be perfect proper if you would find a wife.”

Caidan had heared this arguement before. Trella had seen Caidan’s sister find happiness in marriage and she invisioned the same for Caidan. Trella knew that nobles married other nobles and lived happily ever after. Trella figured that life was as simple as that but Caidan knew better.

Caidan’s parents had shown him what love brought: a second of happiness and a lifetime of worries. Caidan had different plans for himself. He would not end up hating everyone and everything in the end as his parents had! Trella, in a world of her own making, had plans of her own for the young lord of Anbar.

“No proper woman would have me, Trella. Surely you must know that,” Caidan told her in a mild, joking tone.

“If a wife do be out of your reach, my lord, you should go to the school at Caithnard. Learn to be a wizard like your father’s grandfather.”

“Lord Mathom learned to be a wizard because the landrule was not meant to be passed to him. Mathom was the second son and he needed to make a place for himself. Mathom learned wizardry at Caithnard. He was ready to start a new life when everything changed. Mathom’s older brother met with a terrible accident out at sea. Mathom gave up the life of a wizard and had to learn the life of a lord instead.”

“You do be thinking that you do not need education because you will be a lord?” Trella stopped setting out food. Her hands flew to her hips in an indigant pose.

Caidan put his hands out in front of him in a guester of surrender. “Lords need a different education than wizards do. Caithnard is where wizards get their knowledge but the land is where a lord learns what he needs to know.”

“I do be glad that you think so highly of our home, my lord but no one can learn all there is to know.” Trella came to Caidan then and put her arm around him as if he were still a child. “It is alright to ask for help now and then. Promise me that you will ask for help when you need it.”

Trella’s eyes shone with tears. Her saddness confused Caidan.

“Tell me what troubles you, Trella.”

Trella opened her mouth to answer but the bang of the hall door stopped her.

“My lord, there is a traveler at Taim docks, a most unusual traveler,” one of the land tenants told the young lord.

“I saw the ships dock, Devon.” Caidan pointed to the window as he spoke. “Travelers are not so unusual here in Anbar. The ships bring them each season.”

“This traveler is unusual, my lord. And he is asking for you,” Devon told him in a whispered voice.

“Invite this traveler to dine with me,” Caidan ordered. “I will have Trella prepare her rosemary chicken, stuffed with citrus and honey.”

Caidan could see that both Trella and Devon were as nervous as rabbits in a fox den.

“You must dine with us as well, Devon,” Caidan declared, trying to put them both at ease. “You could always spot a lie quicker than I could.”

“You are most gracious, my lord, but I fear that they traveler would not take kindly to that. I believe he means to speek with you alone.”

“All the more reason to have you with us.” Caidan could not see why either of them were so nervious. Who could this mysterious traveler be?

“Your pardon, my lord but I disagree. I would not want to anger the traveler.”

“Did this traveler tell you their name, Devon?”

“She did not need to, my lord. I could see what she was by just looking at her.”

“And what is she?” Caidan was getting even more confused now.

“She is a sorceress of Caithnard, my lord.”

Caidan did not have to wait long for the sorceress to arrive. She blew in like a whirlwind. Drapes, clothes, plates and even chairs spun about the room; following the sorceress’s arch. The sorceress stopped directly in front of Caidan. Every drape, cloth and plate stopped with her. A chair almost landed on top of Caiden!

“Well met, lord of Anbar. I greet you on the journey.” The sorceress spoke with a clear, unruffled voice, as if whirlwinds and falling chairs were normal for her.

“I greet you, sorceress of Caithnard. You truely are a great sorceress and a daughter of knowledge.”

The proper forms of speech had been drilled into him by his father. Caidan knew he would need to know all forms of address for the day he took his father’s place. Caidan did not know the exact form for a sorceress so he used the royalty form. An address suited for a princess should fit the sorceress well.

“You do not seem surprised to see me,” the sorceress declared.

“One of my tenants saw you and told me you were coming.”

“You must introduce me to this tenant. It is a rare man who can recognise me for what I am when I do not reveal myself.”

“I already know that I am lucky to have him,” Caidan told her.

“He is not the reason for my visit.” The sorceress paued in thought with her finger on her chin. “I will need to plan a visit to observe his talents. For now, you and I must talk. I have come here because you have a talent I have seen before. You have a talent that I know how to use.”

“I’m sure that you are generous,” Caidan said slowly, “but I cannot stand still to be used.”

“You turn my words against me. The meaning behind my words is not what you think. You will not be coerced or forced into doing anything,” the sorceress promised.

“My father told me that the magic oath taken at Caithnard forces its users to speak nothing but truth.”

“Your father spoke correctly.”

“What is it that you want me to do?” Caidan asked with suspecion.

“I want you to find something for me. Something powerful and magical. Something that can change the world.”

“Why would I give it to you if it’s that powerful?” Caidan asked with suspicion.

The ship that had taken the seer, the dark elf and the wolf brother from their small villiage home to the capital city in the Eratian empire. The empress had invited them onto her ship to give them an ultimatim: join the empire in fighting the Dark Elves or watch everyone they loved die. The empress was willing to allow the villiage boys to think about their answer until ship docked in Eratia.

“We have found the Nemph,” Caidan told the empress as the ship docked in the emperial city. “They have agreed to come to your city within the week.”

“This isn’t another one of your games?” Siande said in a tone of warning; a tone that said he would regret his words if this turned out to be nothing but a trick.

“I am telling you exactly what the Nemph said. Will and Sargento have been talking with them in the dream world. The wolves have been helping us to find the Nemph.” Caidan had to keep a tight riegn on his temper as he spoke.

“The Nemphs are renouned for their knoweldge. What is it that you think the Nemph can teach you?” The empress asked quietly.

“They know more about the Dark Elves than any other race. They also have long memories. These Nemphs remember how to use the tools that Will and Sargento found. The texts and resources he have are incomplete. The Nemphs can help us complete the information in time to save our homes,” Caidan explained.

“Making contact with the Nemphs and arranging a meeting makes for a promising start but it is only a start. Things are for from done. Your plans are still in the brginning stages.”

“You said before that you couldn’t take our plan seriously if we could not even get the Nemph to meet with you. Do you take us seriously now?” Each word was cut off with the short clip of anger. Caidan tried to control his emotions but nothing seemed good enough for the tiney empress.

The empress seemed to look down at him dispite her short sature. “I can see that you think you’ve earned a treat,” the empress said with a mocking smile.

“I want me friends let out of cages!” Caidan tried not to yell. “We had an agreement.” Caidan tried to calm himself. He took a few deep breaths... and then ten more!

“We did make an agreement,” the empress confirmed after a pause. “You and your friends get a manor in the capital and the freedom to come and go but only once the threat is gone. The Dark Elves will be defeated one way or another.”

“You have a back up plan?” Caidan asked with a sinking feeling in his stomach. “Any thing my friends and I need to know about?”

The empress smiled with a sweet expression that made Caidan think that the small woman had to be hiding something. “You and your friends were able to destroy the Dark Elves before even though you were collard and captured.”

“No threats!” Will hissed as guards led him and Pete into the room. “Part of the agreement was that none of your Eratians would threaten us with prisons or collars!”

“We’re all on the same side now,” Pete reminded both Will and the empress. “No one would imprison their friends. We need to move on with the plan. The Nemphs are on their way to meet with us.”

“We must present a united front when our new allies arive,” the empress told them in a commanding voice. “They will soon be part of the empire.”

“What!” All three of them hollard.

“You’re going to invade the Nemph floating city?” Caidan asked with incredulity.

“There is no need to invade the Nemph. They are joining with the empire willingly,” the empress told them smuggly.

“I hope that the Nemph view this agreement the same way,” Pete said dryly.

“There won’t be any agreements if we don’t get there to meet them,” Will reminded them.

“The others need to be at the meeting,” Caidan demanded. “Sargento and the wolves helped us find the Nemph. Morgan, Annesta, and Raederle are going to be part of using the research as well. They all need to be here to meet with the Nemph.”

The empress nodded to the guards. “Bring all of them out and make sure they get to the palace without causing trouble.”

The guards followed her commands ruthlessly. The wolves were pulled out of their cages by hair, tails and leggs. Annesta was dragged out of her room kicking. Sargento tried to go to her aid but more guards fell on him and restrained him with ropes. By the time all of them made it out of the ship and into the carriages, Raederle’s hair was falling like she had been pulled by it and Morgan was massaging her wrists.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Caidan told the empress in anger.

“Are any of you hurt?” Will asked them softly.

“Just bruised here and there,” Raederle said, rubbing her arm.

“I thought you boys were going to teach these Eratians some manners!” Mistress Tessa shook her finger at the crowd around her as if she were leading the woman’s circle back home. “I know that it’s a big job but you boys are from good stock... you’re up for the task.”

“I’m glad you have such faith in us, Mistress Tessa but I have to disagree,” Will told her with a rye grin. “It will take all of us just to teach one Eratian manners. We can’t handle the whole empire.”

“May be the Nemphs can help teach us all,” Caidan said, trying to remind them about why they were all there.

“You three would do well to learn some humility,” the empress hissed. “This plan of your’s had better work. If the Nemph will not agree to give us information than the deal will be off. You and your friends will be back to your prisoner status.”

“You don’t need to threaten us,” Pete told her. He laughed as if it were funny. Will smiled back to him as if the two of them were sharing a joke.

All sound stopped when the sky above darkened. A cloud was moving towards the Eratian palace at unearthly speed. It was an odd, brown, purple color. Those who had already seen the cloud recognized it instantly and those who never saw it before knew it was something special.

The Nemph were here! The tree flew from the cloud and rose from the air with incredible speed. The latter had been made and the Nemph’s large forms were gliding down it in a stately procession.

“The Creator’s blessings shine on you,” Ervick’s mother, the first Nemph they had met, greeted as she walked down the latter.

“The Creator’s blessing be on you, too,” Pete greeted. “It’s good to see you again. How is Evan?”

“He will be down to see you momentarilly,” the Nemph woman promised. “He is excited to see you as well. Evan has been talking of nothing else.”

“Have your people found information on the Dark Elves? Do you know how to defeat them?” Will asked question after question without waiting for an answer.

The Nemph woman smiled with her broad mouth. “You will have the answers you seek but only after we all become properly acquanted.”

“Yes,” the empress agreed. “The Eratian empire is happy to welcome you. The young men made contact with you on my orders. We have much to discuss, you and I.”

“I do not see that we have anything to discuss. The Nemph have information that your Eratians need.”

The empress interupted the Nemph smoothly. “Eratia has first hand knowledge of the Dark Elves as well.”

The Creator said that we would all need to work together, Snow growled from the road where the guards had thrown her. The Nemph, the wolves and the humans of Winding all have a part to play in defeating the Dark Elves. The humans called Eratians have ignored Fate’s cry and his sacrifice. They will be used by the Creator even so.

“The wolf, Snow is correct. No matter who has the most information, we must all work together,” Evan said, joining them as Snow spoke.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” the empress all but growled with a smile plastered to her face. “I’m afraid that I cannot understand wolves. But then, maybe you can help me with that. Young Pete is refusing to teach my men how to talk with the wolves. Pete thinks that I am an enemy but you know that I am an allie. Information should be shared among allies.”

“The wolves will fight with you without teaching,” the Nemph promised.

“They fought against the Dark Elves and won one battle. The silken women, the wolves, the dreamers, seers and the only man to preform magic in a century: the perfect team.”

“The Nemph can join the fight to help you but we must see these weapons of yours if we are to give you information.” The Nemph woman said while Evan looked from person to person.

“The empress and her guards won’t let us near the staff,” Sargento told them. He had to grind his teeth to keep a reign on his temper. “She keeps that under tight guard but the net is still in the world of dreams.”

“I can meet you in the dream world to examine the net while my mother and brothers stay here to see to the staff,” Evan volunteered.

“I think that it would help us to gather information if the dreamers who made the net and the people of Winding assisted us. They began planning the Dark Elves downfall before the rest of us even knew they were a threat,” the Nemph woman said with authority. The words sounded like a suggestion but the Nemph woman’s tone made it clear that you would soon want what she suggested.

“I am sure that a meeting can be arranged,” the empress began, “but I should warn you that the people of Winding cannot be trusted just yet. They are still new to the civilized world and they are not prepared to use their talents for the empire’s best interst. They require supervision. My guards will accompany them.”

“You have been frank with me so allow me to be frank with you,” the Nemph woman decided. “I do not trust you. I do not trust your guards. I do not want them anywhere near my floating city.”

“I cannot allow the others to go anywhere if they are not escorted by guards,” the empress declared.

“We had an agreement,” Caidan reminded the empress angrilly. “None of us are prisoners!”

“I warned you that the Nemph had to agree for your plan to be useful. I only grant gifts to usefull subjects,” the empress said with bitten off words.

“My freedom is not your’s to give,” Will almost growled out.

“The information my people hold should be enough to buy this favor,” the Nemph woman announced. “I am Tarale Longvine of the Floating City. I am High Speaker for my people and I give you my solom oath that no information will leave the Nemph library without my approval. You know what must happen before I gave my approval.”

The empress stood in silence, contemplating her answer. The wolves began to growl with impatience and the women shifted from foot to foot. Caidan and Will tried to stay as still as possible. The whole room seemed to be holding its breath, waiting.

“I can agree to this,” the empress began, “if you can agree to teach my guards to use the net and the staff.”

“The Nemph are nothing but fair and I will give you a fair price,” Tarale said. “We Nemph are master craftsmen along with master researchers. We can make replicas of these weapons for your guards to use. The Nemph will agree to make enough for your entire army if you give us an hour with your guests from Winding each week. It will take more than six months to make so many.”

The empress had to bring her mouth closed with a click before she could answer. “I believe visists can be arranged.”

“Can you really make more of those weapons?” Will asked in more wonder than incredulity.

“Nemph made the original weapons during the first war against the Dark Elves. My ancestors were fine masons,” Evan told them.

“Is it really a good idea to give these weapons to the empress? I don’t even like her knowing that we have them!” Caidan told them in frustraition.

“None of us trust the empress,” Tarale said as she walked into the room. “You do not need to worry about us trusting her too far. We have already seen that the empress will not honor her agreements for long.”

“We need to way to contact each other even when the empress does not allow these visits,” Evan said as he dug into his belt pouch.

He pulled out eight rings and gave one to each of the people who stood by the floating city’s tree. A small ring with a green stone in the shape of a heart for Raederle; a thick, beaten ring with a triangular green stone for Pete and a intricate signate ring with a round green stone for Will. Each of them got a unique ring with an emerald green stone.

“These rings can be pressed and turned to allow you to send messages to our masons. Mother and I tried to fine tune them to only send messages to us but it was not to be. We ran out of time,” Evan explained.

“This is better than anything we could have imagined!” Will said with real intusiasm.

“Can you trust the other masons?” Raederle asked quickly. “I don’t mean to question you but I have never met them...”

“The masons follow the Creator. They can be trusted,” Tarale said confidantly.

The Creator speaks with them and the Nemph listen, Snow sent to Pete. The wolves trust them. I see no reason why the humans should not do the same. Pete translated for her quickly. The others all nodded in agreement.

“I’ve been with the Eratians too long,” Raederle said. “I’m not sure if I can trust anyone.”

“You’ll remember how to relax again,” Morgan promised her sister. “You’re with friends now.”

Raederle nodded and almost smiled. “We have a bigger enemy than the Eratians. The Dark Elves are still out there.”

“The Eratians are right in front of us but the Dark Elves want to conquer the world,” Pete said in a sad voice.

“There may be a way to protect Winding from both enemies,” Tarale told them.

“You think that rings can protect anyone from the Eratians?” Sargento’s questions had a tone of sarcasm attached.

“You already have strong weapons,” Evan reminded him. “The Nemph will teach you how to use them to their fullest. The Eratians will not dare to attack you after they see the weapons in use.”

“The Eratians have weapons of their own,” Caidan reminded the others. “The silken and the velvet women will still be out there.”

“We have the world of dreams and elemental magic on our side,” Pete told him. “The Creator will protect us and aid us.”

The wolves themselves seemed to nod in agreement along with the Nemphs and humans. They all looked at their rings and knew that plans were in motion; plans that none of them could see the scope of. They would each have to trust the Creator, trust Fate and trust each other.

The empress was fuming. Those Nemph had made her look like a fool. They would regret trying to outsmart her! They would regret as soon as she got the weapons they had made!

She was already planning...

“Sainade!” the empress called in a demanding tone. “Your empire has need of you. Do you answer your empress’s call?”

“I do, majesty,” Sainade swore. “I will serve the empire forever and a day!”

“I fear the our guests are making some rash decisioins. They may need a firm hand to accept their new roles.”

“My role with Lord Caidan and the First Silken was similar. Our guests needed help accepting their roles the last time they were here,” Sianade said as she kneeled down. “I appologise for failing you my lady.”

“Your honor has not been stained, Sianade. There were failings but the fault was not with you.” The empress laid a hand on Sianade’s shoulder. “Those problems have changed and now you have a chance to raise above your station. You will be in charge of collaring our guests and using them to control all four men. I fear that our guests are planning something with the Nemph.”

Sianade nodded her understanding. “I will serve in any way to empire requires. The women will be collard and the others will be obediant when they are needed.”

The empress smiled before saying, “The Nemph will regret any deception. The silken and the magic users will be used to destroy the Nemph city.”

“It will be as my empress commands,” Sianade swore.

“Arcadia,” the empress called the second velvet woman to her. “Your empire needs you. Will you answer its call?”

“I answer the call,” Arcadia promised.

“The empire has great need. I must give you two missions. The first is that you must keep the weapons from our guests at any cost. Destroy the weapons to keep from letting them have them! The Nemph will need to examine them,” the empress explained thoughtfully, “but you must make sure that the beasts do not keep those weapons!”

The empress swung in her passion but Arcadia called to her, “And my second mission, majesty?”

“Find out why our guests were given those rings.” The empress’s voice snapped with finallity.

“As you command, my empress,” Arcadia swore.

“Are the rings sending signals?” Evan asked after the others had left.

“The magic appears to be working,” the older mason answered, “but we will not know anything for sure until one of them tries to compunicate with us.”

“I wish we could offer more aid to them,” Tarale said in a sad boom.

“They do have a harder destiny than most,” Evan said. “Those humans will need all the help they can get.”

“We will give them whatever aid we can,” the mason promised. “I only worry that our aid will not be enough. I feel a great danger coming...”

“The Creator protect us and Fate aid us,” Evan and Tarale both said with solum voices. “The destiny of empires, civilizations and whole planets ride on these winds.”

“The winds of change are breaking through. They will blow us all away if those villagers cannot stop this enemy,” Tarale continued.

“The Creator will strengthen them,” the mason said with assurity. “He would not give them this task only to abandon them.”

“I have faith in the Creator and I believe that He sent us to these people for a reason. I have seen that some of our allies follow Fate’s will but the empress of Eratia is another matter,” Evan said musingly. “I cannot even force myself to trust her.”

“She will try to keep us away from the weapons and from the villagers,” Tarale warned her son. “She is afraid and cannot allow anyone to hold an advantage. The empress does not believe in the Creator and she must rely on her own strength. She cannot allow anyone to see a weakness in her. A lack of strength is the same thing to a woman like her.”

“How do we stop her?” Evan asked in desperation.

“We hope and we pray,” the mason said in a shakey voice.

“Most importantly,” Tarale broke in, “we watch. A trap is not a trap if you know it is coming.”

Sargento tried to ignore the Eratian guards who surounded him. The empress claimed that no one was a prisoner any longer but Sargento could not help but feel like a prisoner.

Guards watched him at all times and he was not allowed to leave the palace without an escort.

“I thought we agreed that we could come and go as we please,” Will argued.

The empress gave a small secretive smile before answering, “I agreed to give each of you a manor. It will take some time to build. Until they are complete, you are guests in my palace. My guests are given the best security. I cannot allow any of them to be hurt so everyone travels with their own congenten of guards.”

“Guests can leave when they want to,” Sargento argued. “I thought you were a woman of your word!”

“Do not test me, boy!” the empress growled. “Has no one taught you manners? A guest would not return home without leave from his hostess.”

“My manners!” Sargento screamed. “What hostess would have armed guards force her guests into rooms?”

“Show some respect, boy!” Sainade growled as she entered the room. She bowed to the empress before saying, “I am sure that you are busy, majesty. Please allow me to handle this boy and his temper tantrums for you.”

“This is very thoughtful of you, Sainade,” the empress said, taking a reign on her temper. “I believe that things will go much smoother after these peasants learn to consider others.”

“Wanting sunlight is far from being selfish,” Caidan said. “What does considering others have to do with getting out of this palace?”

“Dark Elves are still after you. They’re after all of you!” Sainade reminded them. “Being out in a busy city is the last thing you should be doing. The innocent people there will be the ones to pay for your lack of caution. The Dark Elves will come even if they have to go through all those people to get to you. It is much safer for you here with trained guards.”

“Trained guards were with us when shadows jumped out at me last time. Sargento and Will were the ones to save me, not your guards,” Caidan reminded them.

“I noticed that you are still here,” Sianade said dryly. “The Dark Elves have not taken you yet and you know they have been trying to do just that for month now. You cannot count how many times the guards have stopped kidnapping attempts.”

“A murderer’s not stopped every time I take a breathe,” Will told her in an equally dry tone.

“If every shadow was trying to kill you, a murder would be stopped each time you survived stepping into a shadow,” Sianade told him. “You should be grateful to the empress. Not questioning her methods.”

“She’s using us all for her own ends. This has nothing to do with compassion!” Caidan tried to hold back his anger as he spoke.

“You will come to appreciate the kindness the empress has shown you!” Sianade vowed, signalling to the guards.

Three guards moved as one to bring Caidan to his knees. Caidan faught back with kicks and sharp elbows but he could see lifeless eyes staring back at him. These men let an empress think for them. They had no will left! The empress had destroyed them, piece by piece.

Sargento watched helplessly as Caidan was pushed to his feet even as the taller man called to his magic. Sargento heared Annesta gasp as she felt another woman pushing the magic away from Caidan.

“A velvet woman is using a silken to keep Caidan away from magic. He’ll be helpless against so many guards,” Annesta whispered the Sargento in shock and fear.

“Do not be afraid. We’ll find some way to help him,” Sargento whispered back.

Sargento looked to Pete and Will, hoping one of them had some idea but they were both being held back by guards. Sargento did the only thing he could think of: he went into the dream world.

This was the one place he had power and the one place where he could make a difference. He was in the valley of the dream world, looking up into the sky. Pictures began to form in the clouds.

Sargento saw a pitcher and a victor’s wreath. He saw the empress’s crown and a white raven. The pictures on their own did not make much since but when Sargento saw all of them together, he got an idea. He quickly shifted back to the waking world.

Sargento opened his eyes. The world came into focus and the first thing he saw was Annesta’s worried face.

“I told you not to be afraid,” Sargento told her.

“I saw you fall...” Annesta’s voice was edged with fear even now.

“I had to get to the dream world. I know what to do now.” Sargento did not bother explaining more as he jumped into action.

Sargento saw the pitcher and matching vase. The same pitcher he had seen in the dream world. Sargento threw the pitcher at the empress’s diasis, which was covered in branches and white ravens, with a force that was stronger than his strength could account for. Someone screamed when the pitcher hit and the air around the diasis began to ripple. There was a person falling to the ground in front of the diasis. The person appeared from thin air and the sudden appearance left the villagers in silent shock.

Sargento saw Caidan stagger. He must be shocked by the magic’s power as it rushed into him. The force of the magic made Sargento dizzy and he was far away from the center of that magic. The invisable person was a magic user and was somehow keeping Caidan from using magic!

“This is another of your velvet women?” Sargento asked the empress with vinum.

“I have more servants than you can imagine,” the empress said with fire in her eyes. “Each of them have a unique talent. I admit that this woman is one of my servents. She cushions and mutes elemental magic.”

“You used this woman to control me?” Caidan asked in a shocked voice.

“I swore in our agreement that I would not try to control you or take your will but you must relize that me people need assurances and protections too.” The empress spoke in a tone that made it clear that nothing could be more proper.

“You think that taking my magic will keep your people safe? I thought we were on the same side!” Caidan almost screamed.

“She doesn’t trust us,” Sargento declared in a carrying voice. “But the empress isn’t afraid of us. She’s afraid of the Nemph.”

All eyes turned to the empress at Sargento’s revelation; even Sianade and the other velvet women. “I am more than a woman. I am an empire and the empire fears no one! The Nemph pose a small problem but Arcadia is taking care of them.”

“The Nemph are our allies! How can you send Arcadia to spy on them?” Sargento challanged. Sargento pressed the square jewel of his thick gold ring and prayed that the Nemph could hear and understand.

“What gave you the idea that she was spying? There is more than one lesson to learn here,” Sianade advised.

“What have you done?” Raederle demanded more than asked.

“Arcadia is a human,” Will pointed out.

Sargento saw Morgan press the jewel on her ring down before saying, “The Nemph will instantly see that she does not belong.”

“She is getting information from a ring of spies,” Sargento said with confidance. “What Nemph are agreeing to spy?”

“We have no need of Nemphs,” Sianade told them. “They are honest. They make terrible liars. Luckily, the Nemph accept outsiders into their floating city. Those outsiders are easier to buy.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Annesta asked in fear. “We’re supposed to visit with the Nemph each week.” Annesta was pressing the princess-cut jewel on herown thin ring.

“You leave the Nemph to me,” the empress growled. “Sianade! I leave these villagers to you.”

Sianade held a cruel collar in her hand as she slowly moved towards the group of villagers. Will, Caidan and Sargento quickly pushed the women behind them while Pete called to the wolves in desperation.

Protect the women, Pete told the wolves. Sianade and her velvet women will be going after them!

The enemies smell like a storm, Snow sent to the wolves and Pete. Be careful, my brothers and sisters! The lightnings these women call are not like the ones from nature. Run from fires when they come but do not flee before the sparks start. Be strong and couragous! These humans are part of out pack now and we cannot let the enemy have them.

The wolves yipped their approval before darting towards the women in black velvet. The pack had battled lighting and fire in the wild and they had survived. The man-made disasters did not scare them now. The wolves had seen shadows come to life and waves rise to become thundering typhoons but still the wolves held their land and their brothers and sisters. They had faught against these Eratians before, they had faught and won. This time would be no different.

Morgan used all the magic she could call forth to keep the velvet women and their collars away from her. She called the magic into her center until she could fold no more and then pushed it all out as quickly as she could. Morgan completed this ritual over and over again. She pushed harder and harder until the velvet women began to flew through the air...

And Morgan got an idea. Instead of pushing enemies away, she could flew her friends to safety.

“Did you see that?” Morgan aske Mistress Tessa with a squeak of excitment in her voice.

“See the women fly through the air? You must be stronger than you look, girl!”

“I can use the same magic to fly you and the others to safety!” Kairlen explained.

“There is no safety for us,” Mistress Tessa said saddly. “Our homes have been detsroyed.”

“I can send you to the Nemph city. They have prooven to be our allies,” Morgan said.

“We do need to warn them about the Eratians,” Raederle reminded them.

“I pressed my ring,” Annesta said.

“I did too,” Morgan chimed in.

As if to bring validity to their words, Nemph sent tree after tree down to the earth and slid down them to reach the bottom in haste. The Nemph were joining the fight and they knew how to fight!

The old stories used to say that an Nemph’s anger is like a mountain only harder to break. The stone itself did seem to break when the Nemph put their mind to breaking it! Nature, plant, stone and twig all seemed to obey the Nemphs’ unspoken command. The very earth shook and the sky itself seemed to join the fight.

The clouds rolled and changed color as they had the first time the villagers had seen the Nemph city. The Eratians saw it and the velvet women were in too much shock to call lightning.

Caidan called fire and sent the velvet women running. Shock had given way to fear and panic had set in. The women ran away from the carnage, unsure of where they were heading but running there all the same. It seemed to take only seconds for the room to clear out but the peace did not last.

An unnatural wind blew from the west and brought new dangers with it. Alina and Annesta were both loosing the battle to walk against the wind. Caidan and Sargento helped them both; their added weight helping to keep them firmly on the ground and their added strength helping the women move foreward. Morgan was surprised when Will gripped her arm to keep her from blowing sideways.

“Get to the trees!” Evan yelled loud enough to be heared over the wind. Everyone slowly made their way towards the towering plants. They all moved as quickly as they could -- or as quickly as they dared -- towards the trees. The trees were whipping and shaking in the howling wind but their strong roots held them firmly to the ground. Morgan gasped in releife as her hands closed around the sterdy roots.

Morgan’s reliefe is short-lived. The wind has a source, and the source was not the Creator, the source was not the Eratians. The velvet women were running faster than anyone else. The power was obviously not from them. There must be another power at play here.

Morgan felt ice in her stomache spread through her whole body. There’s another enemy. Morgan tried to rub warmth into her hands and arms. As if the Dark Elves and the Eratians weren’t enough! Morgan was not sure she could fight the fear, the cold and the wind. Her foot slipped on a wet, muddied and grassless piece of ground. The tree seemed to fly from Morgan’s hands.

“The trees are returning,” Evan said in shock. “Press your rings and tell the masons what is happening. They can stop the trees and take you up to safety. Tell the masons about --”

Evick was cut off. Morgan thought it was just the wind growning him out but she turned to him and saw him struggling with a shadow. Morgan tried to pull herself off the ground and towards to Nemph. His eyes were bulging and he needed help. The shadows were strangling him!

“Evan!” Morgan called. “Hold on. I’m coming!”

Evan twisted in the shadow’s grasp, turning this way and that to get away. He was fighting for his life but the shadows were stronger than him. They flung him to the shadow of the tree where he disappeared!

“Evan!” Morgan called again. Crawling her way to the tree’s shadows with as much speed as she could muster, Morgan flung herself into the shadows. She called his name again and searched through the blowing dirt and leaves. Evan was gone!

“What happened?” Pete yelled over the wind as he gripped Morgan’s shoulder. “Where did he go?”

“Shadows were attacking him. They took Evan,” Morgan managed to explain before the trees sent Pete, Raederle, Caidan and Mistress Tessa into the sky.

Morgan was not holding onto the branch any more. The tree managed to knock Morgan into the air. She was flying through the sky for several moments but she was no where near the Nemph city. Morgan was flying towards the sea. She tried to take a deep breath in but the water appeared all too soon.

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