Piece 14 – The Long Sunset

The Wolf was one and also many. It fractured into several wolves to launch complicated attacks on the Orcs, then gathered into one Wolf again when it struck at the Treants.

“How far do we have to go?” Curian asked Gnarlroot. The Treant raised a mighty branch and pointed. In the distance. A tree stump taller than a noble’s estate stood in the distance. A dull glow emanated from it, and Curian realized it looked like embers still burning.

“Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot! Now’s the time!” Curian shouted.

A din of laughter arose from the Wolf. “It hardly matters.”

Gnarlroot and Kil’Gronn reached the remains, and a bright light erupted forth. In the distance, birds began chirping as a light breeze danced through the upper reaches of the trees.

“Thank the Gods,” Curian blurted out.

The chase continued, the charred remains of Elderbark just a few lumbering Treant steps ahead.

“Something’s not right,” Curian muttered.

A chorus of laughter rose up from the wolves that made up the Wolf. “You’re catching on, but will you figure it out before I claim your soul?”

Sophia looked around frantically as one of the wolves leapt from branch to branch. It swiped at her with its claws, only having narrowly missed as the Burlknot slammed it back to the ground.

“Hope your little, mountain-mud brain comes up with something,” Burlknot shouted with an offer of an unexpected smile. Curian chuckled; she took note of the insult and told herself she’d have to return the favor later.

If there was a later, of course.

The last several times they’d reached the remains played back in Curian’s mind.

“Kil’Gronn, do you trust me?” Curian shouted over the madness.

Kil’Gronn shrugged. “As much as I’d like to, which is only about half as far as I could throw you.”

Curian nodded. “Good enough,” she said. “Bet you could throw me pretty damn far. What about you, Gnarlroot?”

“Your heart beats like one who is not trying to deceive, and so I will afford you my trust,” Gnarlroot replied.

Sophia furrowed her brow. “I already know that look,” she shouted. “You’ve got something mad and foolish planned, haven’t you?”

“Hey, Gnarlroot! Throw me to the ashes!” Curian shouted.

The colossal leader of the Treants stopped suddenly. Curian held on with all of her strength, the rush of wind from the abrupt stop nearly throwing her from where she stood.

“Just do it, damn you!”

Gnarlroot plucked Curian from his upper branches as gently as they could, swung back the mighty branch that held her, and then released with as much calculated care a sentient tree of some thousand years in age could muster.

Curian soared through the air that spanned the distance between the chaos of the Wolf, the Treants, and the Orcs, her face pinned back by the wind. Her eyes watered and she tried to keep focused. The ashes arrived far quicker than expected, and Curian had only enough time to land with an awkward forward roll that narrowly avoided hitting the far edge of the depression in the mighty stump.

She fumbled with various concealed pockets without looking, her eyes fixed on the wolves as they coalesced into one massive form. Behind it, everything else had frozen in place.

“Here goes nothing,” Curian said as she retrieved a small tool she’d stolen from an Artificier at The Hobbled Drake Tavern after he had shared a few too many opinions with her about he she could be more appealing to the eyes. It was a simple box with a curious wheel at its top next to a small opening that occasionally stunk like bogwater.

Curian flicked the wheel. A small spark issued, but nothing followed. She repeated, watching as the Wolf reared back and leapt at her.

“Shit!” Curian shouted as she repeated the action one last time. The spark ignited, and she dropped the device into the heart of the Heart of the forest. The ashes erupted in brilliant green flames around Curian, though they did not touch her.

“Elderbark,” Curian said as she grasped for the right words. “I, uh…I release you to the next life. Your watch of this forest has ended, and a new one has begun. Rest!” She had little time to be proud of her eulogizing as the Wolf growled, prowling on the outer edge of the flames.

“I will tear the flesh from your bones first,” the Wolf snarled. “Then rend your pitiful soul from your body. I will savor it as your eternal screams roll down my throat.”

The flames burned brighter and brighter. There was an explosion of light outwards, rolling over every inch of the forest. Curian shut her eyes against its radiance, and when she opened them the Wolf was gone. She found herself standing at the foot of the tree stump, her hands shut tightly around something.

“One of the Pieces,” she gasped as she opened her fingers.

“Guess there’s more than dirt between those ears,” Burlknot said, roaring with laughter. The Orcs, slowly, joined in the merriment.

“Thank goodness you’re okay,” Sophia said as she was set down. “How did you know that would work?”

Curian scratched at the back of her head. “Call it a hunch, I guess?”

Sophia massaged her temples.

“That was very brave of you, little one,” Gnarlroot harrumphed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward, bowing to Curian. Curian returned the gesture.

“Very brave indeed,” Kil’Gronn said. “You are welcome to visit my…” She hesitated, her attention briefly turned to the Treants.

“Our” Kil’Gronn corrected herself, “forest whenever you like.”

Curian smiled. “Only so long as you’re not trying to kill each other,” she said.

Kil’Gronn and Gnarlroot exchanged sheepish glances.

“I believe there is much mending of old wounds to be done,” Gnarlroot said. “As for you two, where will you go next?”

Curian looked toward the sunset, its last rays of light pooling high in the distance on snow-capped mountains.

Wanted Adventurers: An Unhappy Alliance

Aranza and Monty had been escorted to a small holding room–not a cell, the guard emphasized, as it had no bars and pleasant accommodations–while Temperance presented her case against being saddled with such criminals.

“She seemed very nice,” Monty said, leaning back in one of the antique, hand-carved wooden chairs in the room. Its legs creaked with alarm, and the guards at the door cringed visibly. It was a reaction Monty had discovered accidentally and decided to replicate as many times as possible.

Aranza shrugged. “Don’t care much for her.”

Monty raised an eyebrow. “You didn’t care much for me either when we first met, if I recall.”

“Don’t know what you’re on about,” Aranza shot back.

“You tried to murder me, I recall,” Monty said as he leapt to his feet and his chair fell backwards to the floor with an unfortunate thackathack of wood against stone. “The only thing that stayed your hand was your realization I wasn’t sent to govern over your fair city, but I had arrived to eliminate my uncle and free your people.”

Aranza looked away. “Not a proud moment for me, all right?”

There was a sharp knock at the doors. The guards both jumped, visibly startled. They opened the doors, and Temperance walked briskly past. Alistair walked in, his gait more theatrical than practical, and gestured for the guards to leave. They exited quickly, shutting the doors behind them.

Temperance exhaled slowly. She looked around the room as if intent on not looking at Monty or Aranza.

“Lord Alistair, I must protest,” Temperance said. She turned to face Alistair, scowling at Monty as her gaze passed over him.

Alistair sighed. “My good and thoughtful Paladin of the Guild, you have protested and your concerns have been logged appropriately.”

Temperance deflated, the words a pin lancing through the waterskin that held any hopes remaining of her escaping such a task.

“Now I happen to believe there’s good in the hearts of these two,” Alistair continued. “They’re lousy thieves or deliberate prisoners, and they don’t seem very good at either of those things.” He offered Aranza the warm smile of a parent who acknowledged their child’s insistence of not having taken a cookie while spotting the crumbs around their lips, and Aranza couldn’t help but smile in response.

Alistair glanced at Monty and offered a similar smile. Monty remained stoic.

“It should be little to no surprise that I did a bit of reading up on the two of you,” Alistair explained. “I think you two can learn a lot from Temperance, but I also think she can learn a lot from you two as well.”

“Forgive me if I am anything but doubtful,” Temperance replied.

Alistair shrugged. “Doubtful or not, Temperance of House Ravencroft, you succeed or fail with them. Their punishment becomes yours. Rough deal, but you know how Alexandros is. Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Alistair produced a magnificent flask, a dragon whelp snaked around it with its head resting peacefully on the lid. He prodded the dragon with his finger. It stirred, snorted a small plume of smoke, and shifted just enough out of the way. The aroma that spilled in the room was as if someone had set an entire cart’s worth of sun-spoiled fruit on fire. Alistair took a healthy swig. He winced, but his face gradually melted into a more peaceful expression.

“Forgive me, but this makes bad news easier to deliver,” Alistair conceded. He reached into his cloak and produced a scroll held tightly shut with a deep purple wax seal. He held it out to Temperance, but before her fingers could close around it Monty had grabbed it away.

“This is some kind of twisted joke, yes?” Monty snapped.

Temperance tried to retrieve the scroll only to have it pulled from her grasp again, this time by Aranza.

Aranza turned the scroll over in her hands before fixating on the seal. “Guess you’re not taking many bets on how long will last, are you old man?”

Alistair shook his head, though he looked somber despite the potent spirit he’d indulged.

“If one of you could be so kind as to explain, please, as I am cursed with your presence as my wards as it is,” Temperance sneered.

Aranza waved the scroll in front of Temperance’s face. The Paladin narrowed her eyes, annoyed but patient enough, and finally grabbed it. She stared at the seal, then turned the scroll over in her gauntleted hands. At last, she frowned and looked to the others.

“I’m not familiar with this seal or these markings,” she conceded.

Monty clicked his tongue. “We would be so fortunate as to be blessed with the greenhorn Paladin.”

“Don’t be an asshole, Monty, because we’re in no better shape right now,” Aranza shot back. She stepped closer to Temperance, who reflexively backed away. Holding out one hand, she gestured to the scroll with the other. Temperance reluctantly handed it back over.

“Purple wax means magic user,” Aranza explained. “Unless the coding’s changed.”

Alistair shook his head. “You know how long it took us to get that nonsense sorted? It would take the Gods themselves to change it. Not even sure they could manage to achieve such a feat.”

“A simple yes would have sufficed,” Monty replied.

Aranza pointed to the seal again. “Purple means magic user, then, but this particular seal is awfully elaborate. The spikes around the edge and the symbols around the center tell a story, right?”

Alistair smiled. “Very clever,” he replied. “I don’t suppose you were once a Guild Initiate?”

“Used to steal Guild communications and sell them to put food on the table,” Aranza said with no further explanation. “Don’t know what they mean, but if I had to guess we’re going after a bounty. The big, ugly skull in the middle of the seal is what tells me we shouldn’t make any plans for the long-term.”

Temperance furrowed her brow. “If you know so little of reading these seals, how can you be sure?”

Monty stepped forward and exchanged glances with Aranza. “There are countless beings capable of wielding magic,” he said. “Even you can grasp that. The rest, however, and especially the skull? They point to a very specific variety of bounty we’ll be facing.”

Temperance opened her mouth to respond, closing it and opening it several times as the answer slowly dawned on her.

The world faltered, the nicely-furnished holding room–not a holding cell–suddenly replaced by a dark, subterranean tomb.

“And then you arrived here, eager to cause havoc at my expense?” Archlich Karaxis asked, an edge of impatience to his hollow voice.

Temperance shook her head. “Not so simply, no,” she replied. “I’m only just beginning.”

Piece 13 – The Truth in the Shadows

Burlknot was the first to speak after Curian’s insult. “Is she always like this? This…pleasant?”

Sophia offered a slight shrug. “Her heart’s in the right place, but it occurs to me she hasn’t slept since we’ve set out on our journey,” she said.

“I’m perfectly fine, thank,” Curian snapped back, stopping short as she fell forward. Her face landed in a dense moss patch, and she began to snore almost immediately.

“Perhaps we could allow her time to rest before resuming things,” Gnarlroot reasoned. “It seems we both have made a deal with her, after all, and she did have some rather strong words just now.”

Curian snored loudly, face partially buried in the moss.

“If any of you Treants try anything, don’t think we’ll hesitate to cut you down where you stand,” Kil’Gronn said.

Burlknot stomped forward, stopped short by Gnarlroot.

“You keep watch from your side of the path and we will keep watch on ours,” Gnarlroot snapped back.

The fog was dense, but Curian knew the way. She followed the ruined stair, her fingers running along the moss and vines that covered much of the wall next to her.

A starless, cloudless sky greeted her as she reached the top of the crumbling castle’s highest tower. A foul, bitter wind threatened to knock Curian over the edge, but she braced herself against it. In preparation of what was waiting for her. She felt a familiar gaze and knew it was just a matter of time.

The fire erupted from around the edges of the tower, spreading until Curian was trapped. Shadows formed on the other side of the raging flames, coalescing into a single figure that stepped through unscathed.

Dullahan.

“Across the gulf of darkness, from beyond thresholds I may not cross, you seek me out,” Dullahan taunted. “Your efforts are in vain.”

Curian drew a sword she didn’t remember acquiring, its glittering blade giving off a warm light from within. Runes glowed softly along its hilt. She pointed it at Dullahan, eyes narrowed.

“I cannot let you harm my world,” Curian said.

Dullahan let out a chilling laugh. “You never had a say in the matter. From the moment you brought the Prognosticarium back here you already ensured I would travel world to world, and the darkness would follow in my wake. Not that you’ll need to worry about that for long…”

Curian lunged, sword raised, but fell short as the castle beneath her began to quake violently. She stumbled forward, looking around wildly in hopes of seeing what had happened. The entire world was shifting and shaking wildly, cracks of light breaking through all around.

“Wake up, damn you!” a voice rang out. “We’ve got a situation here!”

The world exploded in a blur of light, and when Curian’s eyes adjusted she found herself face-to-face with Sophia.

“Forgive me. I know you must have been tired,” Sophia said. She jerked backwards, and as Curian’s eyes focused she saw Kil’Gronn behind Sophia.

“Talk later,” Kil’Gronn demanded. She threw Sophia upwards into Burlknot’s waiting branches.

Curian did not have a chance to say anything before Kil’Gronn repeated the process on her.

“Hold tight, loud little one,” Burlknot grumbled. “Would hate to drop you before I have the chance to make you regret that remark you made.”

Curian chuckled. “Ah, that little gem,” she said. “What’s going on, exactly? I feel like I’ve missed something.”

Sophia pointed to the ground below. The forest had gotten significantly darker to the point where Curian couldn’t see any of the Orcs below. She glanced up and noticed the sun was still just where it had been before. When she looked back down towards the ground, Curian could feel something watching her.

Two crimson eyes, deep tears cleaved in the gathered shadows, appeared fixed on Curian.

“Little traveler, you are so far from home,” growled a voice from the shadows. “Let us ease your troubles. Come to us and we will give you peace.”

The shadows shifted and rolled over one another, gathering together to form a massive, singular form. Their edges blurred with the air around them but its shape was unmistakable.

“Wolf,” Curian muttered.

“Gods no,” Sophia whispered. “One of the Morrigan.”

A low guttural sound crept up from below, building to a dull roar. The wolf was laughing.

“I’m so glad we could find you before our sisters,” the Wolf said. “They would have surely robbed us of this joy.”

“Hate to ruin this moment for you, but the bird-brained one tried to kill us already,” Curian said.

Sophia glared at Curian. “Don’t taunt the Morrigan, please.”

“Hey, Angerbranch,” Curian said.

Burlknot groaned. “You are a very difficult creature to tolerate.”

Curian nodded. “I get that a lot,” she replied. “Listen. I think we need to fix this forest. You up to the task? Time to put differences aside because…” She pointed at the Wolf.

“Gnarlroot, what say you?”

Gnarlroot signaled to the other Treants, who began scooping up the Orcs. “One day, we will have to sit down and come to terms with our past,” he roared. “Today is not that day! With me, Treants! We must gather the ashes!”

The Treants moved in great strides across the forest, the absence of wind creating a horrifying echo from the howls that followed behind them. They moved fast, but the Wolf moved even faster. She tore at the Treants roots and leapt upwards, digging her claws into their trunks.

An alcove of trees that stood higher than the rest loomed in the distance. Above the din of madness and fury raging behind them, Curian could hear Kil’Gronn as if they were next to each other.

“Beautiful,” Kil’Gronn gasped. “Not what I expected at all.”

“It would seem we have some misconceptions about each other,” Gnarlroot said, not breaking stride as another Treant was felled, this one even closer.

A tree trunk stood alone in the center of the copse, its center darker than the surrounding wood.

“Ashes!” Curian called out. “Kil’Gronn! Gnarlroot!”

Kil’Gronn leapt from Gnarlroot, hurtling downwards. Gnarlroot extended a branch and Kil’Gronn vaulted off of it, landing with a careful forward roll on the tree stump.

“No! Gods damn you, no!” the Wolf howled.

Light exploded outwards from the heart of the tree stump, engulfing everything in the forest. When the light dimmed, the Wolf had gone. Several Treants lay in ruin, the Orcs they had been carrying dead around them.

In the distance, birds had begun chirping as a soft breeze blew between the branches.

Warpt Factor – Installment 13

Izzy stood in the guestroom she’d been guided to upon arrival at the Rigellian Palace. Stars twinkled in the ceiling’s perfect recreation of the night sky. A bed bigger than Izzy’s room took up a great deal of the floor, and on the bed rested a dress the color of vibrant rust.

“I’ve got my eye on you, fancypants formal nonsense,” Izzy said. “Sure, you’re very nice looking, and wow you are soft. But you’re so boring.” Izzy huffed, plopping down on the enormous bed, sinking into its sea of softness.

Everything about the room looked like big dollar signs, and the whole thing was enough to make Izzy want to find the nearest, greasiest fast food place.

There was a soft knock at the door.

“Captain Warpt,” CMO Carter said. “May I enter? Sorry, are you decent?”

Izzy stifled a laugh. “Sure, come on in,” she replied. “This room’s big enough for, like, a family of five and their twelve pets.”

CMO Carter opened the door, peering into the room. “That was an oddly specific number. Speaking from experience?” She hesitated, her eyes falling on the dress. She was still in uniform. She exhaled slowly.

“Not a fan,” Izzy said. “Is it poor manners to refuse?”

CMO Carter looked as if she was fighting against a smile that was winning out. “Truthfully, Captain Warpt, I was hoping to take my lead from my commander on duty.”

Izzy stared blankly for a moment, the words processing. CMO Carter continued to stand at attention.

“Oh, duh. Sorry, Carter. Still getting used to that,” Izzy said. “Izzy, please. Call me Izzy when we’re not doing official stuff. I can’t do serious twenty-four seven, it’ll kill me.”

CMO Carter smiled. “Duly noted, Izzy,” CMO Carter said. “Still getting used to helming a vessel?”

“Adjusting to the crew,” Izzy said. “It’s just First Officer deCourville, Professor Everest, and me on the Albatross. What’s your story, Carter?”

“Mel works better since we’re not being so official,” CMO Carter replied. “I was stationed at Medical Station Astras. Not much going on out here since the other Spiral Reach stations were decommissioned, so I keep an ear out. There are some interesting music stations out here if you figure out the right CommLink protocols. Heard some interesting chatter, so two others and I chose to investigate.”

Izzy nodded. “Heard there could be danger and didn’t wait for the cavalry to arrive.”

CMO Carter replied with a sheepish grin. “When you put it like that.”

“No, no,” Izzy said, holding a finger up. “I’d rather do the right thing a hundred times over doing it by the book once. Yeah, there are loads of rules you’ve got to follow, but Spiral Reach extends its arms to those in need. Right? I feel like there’s a lot of room for interpretation there.”

CMO Carter smiled. “My colleague have been released,” she said. “Though I suspect they are on their way back to the station as they didn’t seem particularly keen to join in this, well, very formal dinner with our captors.”

“Not up for being pals with the people who threw them in a dungeon,” Izzy replied.

CMO Carter laughed. “No, I suppose not. On the subject of dinner, however.” Her eyes shifted back to the dress, then to Izzy.

“Nope, no thanks,” Izzy said. “I think it’s best we represent Spiral Reach in uniform. We are proud officers who have no need to fancy ourselves up. These uniforms? Fancy enough.”

“Captain’s orders, then. I wouldn’t want to disregard those.”

Izzy furrowed her brow, her lips pursed. “Orders nothing!” She paused, considering the rest of what CMO Carter had said. “Sorry, I had a little crazy stuck in my ear. What was that?”

There was a second knock at the door, the rapid and urgent one of someone with something important to say. “Captain Isabelle Warpt,” said a nasally from outside of the room. “Please follow me to the grand dining hall. Dinner is about to be served.”

“To be continued,” Izzy said. “I’m bookmarking this conversation for later.” Izzy motioned for CMO Carter to follow. Beyond the door was a long hallway lined with doors, which Izzy assumed opened into rooms similar to the one she was in. No one, however, was waiting to guide her and CMO Carter to the grand dining hall.

“Apologies for the confusion,” a voice resonated from nowhere, but sounded like its speaker was directly next to Izzy. “I am one of the many autonomous Helper units. We have been summoned to bring you to dinner. Please observe the lights in the floor as we guide you to your destination.”

The beautiful, red carpeting glowed faintly to Izzy’s left. Izzy turned and stepped in that direction, and more of the hallway began to light up. She continued along, CMO Carter following suit.

Antique candelabras fitted with arcing plasma in place of flames lined the hallway.

The hallway reached a junction, at which point the Helper guided them to go left. This hallway had fewer doorways, paintings occupying the space between the rooms. They loomed from the floor to the ceiling, and were each different styles of painting that all depicted the greatness of the Rigellian Empire.

The hallway split off to a long, winding stairway, mirrored by a twin stairway further down the hallway. The stairways reunited at a landing just before the floor, a short few steps flowing down to just below magnificent double-doors like a pooling river.

The doors opened with ease, automated but programmed to await someone to reach out to open them. The grand dining hall was true to its name, vast and bustling with people. The center of the room was dominated by a long banquet table, levitating at just the right height thanks to the anti-grav boosters on its underside. The Ruklan President, Prime Minister, and Archbishop had gathered with Supreme Leader Calvin Rigellus.

Prime Minister Todan spotted Izzy. She smiled, waving her over. “Thank goodness, child, you’re a breath of fresh air,” Todan said, excusing herself from the group. “None of the servants bring the good sweets over for fear of some sort of political faux-pas. I don’t suppose I could convince the two of you to join me in seceding to form our own table, can I?”

“It’s tempting, but decorum or whatever,” Izzy replied. She glanced around the busy room, then returned her attention to the Prime Minister.

“Where’s the rest of my crew?”

Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Your First Officer is still being calmed down, I believe, the poor darling. I’ve never met a Cicardox quite so…easily upset.”

“Oh man, the stories,” Izzy started. She took a deep breath, and continued. “I understand where he’s coming from, I think. He’s got brains for days and I bet he’s all soft and warm under that barrier of snootiness he puts up. He’s got a very bright future ahead of him, I’m sure. I’ll do what I can to get him there.”

Whatever thoughts Prime Minister Todan had in response to Izzy were never fully communicated. She gave a simple nod, placing her hands on Izzy’s shoulders.

“The tall fellow was looking after him, I believe,” Todan continued. “I’ll make sure a Helper is sent for them. And then perhaps a Helper for the Helper, just to air on the side of expedience.”

“There she is,” rasped the now-familiar voice of Calvin Rigellus. He was shorter in person, the wrinkles in his brow and around his eyes far more pronounced. His face was one of someone who hadn’t slept in days, but his energy was contagious. Izzy couldn’t help but smile back.

“You remind me of my Gramps,” Izzy blurted out before she could stop herself.

Calvin rumbled with laughter. “I’ve got quite a few grandbabies of my own, but given what you accomplished in so little time I think I could take on an honorary one. We’ve been busy talking, and have come to some very interesting conclusions.”

“Care to continue?” Izzy asked, eyebrows raised.

“Those details will wait for the speech I’ve prepared,” Calvin replied. “For now, please mingle. Enjoy the food and drinks! I promise you this will be a wondrous meal to signal wondrous beginnings! Excuse me, I believe the Ruklan Generals have arrived. I’d like to greet them.” He rushed off into the crowd.

Izzy watched as Calvin disappeared from sight, then turned to Prime Minister Todan.

“He’s not the same guy I threatened with a doomsday device earlier, right?” Izzy asked. “Doppelganger? Good twin to the evil one from before?”

CMO Carter and Prime Minister Todan both laughed.

“My dear, the delicate minutiae of diplomacy are tedious and boring, but when utilized well they make for all the difference,” Todan explained. “Getting a message of peace across to all of our people will take time, but it has to begin somewhere. We’ve already had a number of breakthroughs in this short time.”

“Things can only get better from here,” Izzy replied.

“With the right effort, yes,” Todan said. “I don’t suppose you’ve got your remarks prepared, do you? After all, you did threaten to blow up the planet.”

Izzy looked around the room for a quick diversion, and happily found one in spotting Professor Everest.

“Oh, hey. Brannigan’s here. Better go rendezvous with him to, uh, ship captain stuff,” Izzy replied rapidly before rushing off towards her crew.

Brannigan greeted Izzy with a warm smile and a thumbs-up. “Quite the plan you cooked up there, Captain!

“Hardly a plan,” First Officer deCourville snapped, appearing from behind Brannigan. “You could have gotten us all killed, you know, along with every Ruklan and Rigellian.”

“Didn’t hear you offering up anything better,” Brannigan chided.

“No, Professor, he’s right,” Izzy said. “it was the best I could come up with in the moment, but it was a gamble. A crap-shoot. A real roll of the dice, yeah? So next time we go in better prepared.”

“Exactly the kind of contrary response I expected…” First Officer deCourville snapped, stopping mid-thought. “Beg you pardon, what did you just say?”

“Attention, esteemed guests,” the Helper voice boomed throughout the vastness of the grand dining hall. “Please locate your designated seats as dinner is about to be served. Speeches to follow from our Magnificent Supreme Leader and his Ruklan cohort.”

“Leaving you on a cliffhanger,” Izzy said with a wink. “Speech to give and dinner to not eat because speeches give me anxiety. See you around!”

Izzy’s place setting was directly next to Prime Minister Todan’s, though she distinctly remembered it being to the immediate left of the Supreme Leader. CMO Carter was seated with the rest of the crew at one of the smaller tables that seemed to be slowly gravitating around the main table.

Prime Minister offered a polite smile and a pat on the back as Izzy sat down. “You’ll do just fine, Captain Warpt,” Todan said. “I believe in you.”

Food was brought out course by course, with each one more awe-inspiring than the last. Izzy had provided no information beforehand, but was offered dish after dish of her favorites. By the time dessert had arrived, the only thing she could think of was how nice a nap would be.

“Honored guests, Rigellian and Ruklan,” Calvin said, his seat having shifted to become a floating platform upon which he could stand. “And what an honor, I would like to add, is it to be able to greet Rigellians and Ruklans together on good terms.” He paused until the applause quieted.

“I am not always quick to admit my faults and failures, and it took our fair planet reaching the brink of war and destruction to get there,” Supreme Leader Calvin said, pausing until the laughter at his self-deprecation died down. Video screens manifested in the air around the room displaying pictures with dates from hundred years prior.

“The Ruklans and Rigellians lived in harmony for years, and though we did not always approach issues the same way we were still able to put our differences aside. We allowed a grievous and terrible rift to develop, and I certainly did my part to only worse than. I am so sorry for that, but will not stop with mere words. An apology is only as good as the actions that follow it.”

Calvin gestured to President Geln. She stood, her seat becoming a platform similar to Supreme Leader Calvin’s.

“There is still much to discuss, and even more rebuilding to be done by both sides,” President Geln added. “The road ahead is long and will take time and hard work to traverse. I am confident we will get there together.”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “As part of the first step, I am stepping down as Supreme Leader as of this moment.”

“And I as President,” Geln added. “Today marks the end of old, divided factions, and the beginning of a unified government on Rigel Six. One that is an extension of Rigel Six’s people.”

“All of them,” Supreme Leader concluded. “It took a substantial wake-up call for us to come to these terms, and it is in no small part thanks to the actions of one very brave, perhaps unorthodox, Captain of the Spiral Reach Academy.”

Izzy felt her face warming and knew she had to be blushing. She quietly cursed herself as she knew what would follow.

“That very Captain, Isabelle Warpt, has joined us with her crew to celebrate on this evening as we move forward together to begin repairing our broken and divided past,” Calvin continued. He gestured to Izzy, who stumbled to stand in time before the seat was gone completely.

The room roared with applause from both Ruklan soldiers and Rigellian civilians. Brannigan, taller than anyone in the room, hooted and hollered as the crew’s table moved past. He half-stood, precariously balanced on his chair. CMO Carter also applauded.

Izzy saluted her crew, and found herself a little surprised when all–including Fontaine–returned the gesture.

“Hey, everyone!” Izzy said cheerfully. She paused, startled by the unexpected magnification applied to her voice. She couldn’t help but notice everyone in the room was watching her, and a nagging voice in the back of her head reminded her of every nightmare featuring a similar situation. She cleared her throat, straightened up, and continued.

“Families are crazy,” Izzy said. She paused, aware of the people looking around to see where this was going.

“Families are crazy. They’re a little bit of all sorts of people, with different personalities and interests and so many feelings,” Izzy continued. “And so many arguments, like when your uncle decides he’s going to try to rob a bank and no one has the sense to stop him until, like, halfway through the whole mess, but then it turns into a big, confusing conversation about who has to bail him out of prison.”

Murmurs of confusion rose among the gathered crowd.

Izzy took another deep breath and continued. “You’re all like a family,” she said. “I look out at you and I see mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. You don’t always get along, but you make the best of it. Tonight? Totally making the best of it. Tomorrow? Only one way to find out.”

“But I believe in you all. I believe you’ll all take those nasty thoughts and toss them in the trash where the belong, and give each other a chance. I may have helped push things along, but the rest is up to everyone here, and everyone across Rigel Six. The best part? You can definitely do it, and it’ll be amazing! Thank you for letting me be a part of this.”

Izzy could feel the sweat on her forehead and her palms. She shook slightly, but not enough to be seen, and waited.

Both Geln and Calvin lead in the applause. A number of others joined in, and before long the roar was so great that nothing could be heard over it. Izzy sat down as soon as her platform cooperated.

“Very personal,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ll have to ask for the stories behind it some day, I think.”

“A toast to Captain Warpt and Spiral Reach Academy!” Calvin added.

Glasses were still raised high in the air when the screens abruptly cut out. They returned featuring a single figure, shrouded in darkness.

“Forgive my interruption, but I would hate for such a momentous gathering to go without giving a few words,” the shadowy figure said. “After all, I sacrificed a great deal of time and money to provide the Ruklans and Rigellians with such impressive arsenals. It’s the least I deserve.”

Wanted Adventurers: The Cost of Freedom

Alistair Starspeaker smiled at Aranza and Monty. “I know you can’t speak right now,” he said. “You’re second on the agenda. Hang back and watch.” The Paladin remained silent, standing with her hands clasped behind her back. She hadn’t stopped glaring at Monty and Aranza since she had retrieved them from their cell.

There was a blinding flash of light, and the thrones were suddenly occupied. All but one–the one draped in a banner displaying, in beautifully sewn golden script, Alistair’s name.

The occupant of the center throne needed no banner to state his name. Alexandros Heavensong was revered, even among his fellow highborne elves, and bards sang songs about the songs that conveyed tales of his greatness. He was the youngest Guildmaster to leader the Guild. His two large, starry black eyes occupied much of his angular face, which was framed by long, flowing, unbelievably perfect silver hair.

To his immediate left was Alistair’s empty throne. Esra Stormcaller sat to his right. Briar of the Northern Woodlands draped himself lazily across the far left throne, while Vandra Skullcrusher barely fit atop her throne, the half-giant Berserker far larger than any of her colleagues.

“I see we have two matters on which we are presiding today,” Alexandros said, having produced a scroll from his elegant robes. He reviewed it slowly, his eyes gliding over the words on the parchment.

“Hey, Ali,” Briar shouted. ” What in the Seven Hells are you doing down there? Mingling with the criminals these days?”

Alistair shook his head, stepping forward. “I’ve done it,” he declared. “I did a crime. No, at least three crimes! You should absolutely judge me and find my guilty.”

Esra narrowed their eyes, shifting their short, stocky form in their throne. “You’re back on those insane wizard mushrooms again, aren’t you?” they asked, their smirk and tone at odds with each other.

“Not presently, I’m not,” Alistair replied. “Can’t help that you refuse to give them a try. They’re a good time, at least once the walls stop screaming. Anyway, crimes. I did ’em. Lock me up.”

Alexandros sighed. It was a soft, pleasant, melodious sound, too perfect for the emotion it was conveying. Monty was unable to speak due to the imprisonment spell, but it did not prevent him from scowling.

“Please explain yourself, Guild Lord Starspeaker,” Guildmaster Alexandros said.

Alistair smiled. “But of course! I commandeered a galleon sailing on behalf of the Cerulia Navy, deposed the head of a royal family, and I consumed at least twice my weight in alcohol before noon no fewer than three times last week! Lock me up. I deserve nothing less!”

“You kept busy on your vacation, then,” Vandra said. “Bet you did half of that just to get out of the wrestling match you owe me.”

Alexandros massaged his temples, sighing again. “Please don’t encourage him, Vandra,” he said flatly. “As for your list of crimes, I feel it is essential to point out that you took command of a ship of much-needed supplies and ensured it arrived days ahead of schedule. You destroyed the Vampire Lord Zarrok the Vile, freeing the villages around the Umbershade Woods.”

“And we overlook your drunken foolishness because you created and imbued your essence with a spell that sobers you up in seconds with no ill effects,” Briar added. “Not that you’ve ever had the decency to share that arcane knowledge.”

“I can still out-drink him,” Vandra boasted.

Alistair held up a finger, shifting his jaw this way and that as if he were chewing on what he had to say next. He exhaled slowly, deflated and defeated.

“Fine, fine,” Alistair said. “You win this time. Next time I’ll do bigger crimes.”

“Alexandros shook his head. “Please don’t,” he said flatly. He snapped his fingers and Alistair disappeared, reappearing seconds later in his throne looking slightly dazed.

“Don’t like that one bit,” Alistair said, visibly trying to will himself to not become sick.

“Onward to actual matters worth addressing,” Alexandros said. He waved a hand across the air. The magic around Monty and Aranza flickered and splintered, its remnants falling to the floor in a circle.

“You’d be wise to not try crossing that barrier,” Alexandros continued. “Doing so would prove very painful. You are aware why you stand trial before the Guild’s Council of Masters, yes?”

Monty opened his mouth to speak, but stopped. Aranza had grabbed his hand and squeezed.

“Trust me,” Aranza whispered. Monty nodded just enough that Aranza could see.

“Venerable council, we are on trial before you as we sought to take money from your vaults,” Aranza said. “We did so because we are low on funds, making our quest difficult.”

“Ooh, a quest,” Briar said, perking up. “Don’t suppose you need an experienced Ranger to help, do you?”

Alexandros glanced towards Briar, something flashing across his face for an instant, but whatever it was shut Briar up.

“There’s much evil in this world, and we are seeking to wipe it out for the sake of the Light’s goodness,” Aranza continued.

Alexandros nodded. “Are you not aware that the penalty for taking from the Guild’s coffers is public execution? That gold supports peoples far beyond Valarmount.”

“Before we do anything too hasty, might I suggest an alternative?” Alistair interrupted. “These two intrepid, capable adventurers could be of service to our causes. A mutually beneficial arrangement could be made in place of punishment, yes? Help revive the Guild’s image as benevolent and all-guiding.”

“The old drunk’s got a point,” Vandra replied. “More people cower in fear when I walk by these days.”

“You’re ten feet tall and your biceps are bigger than a man’s head,” Briar shot back. “Your last name is actually Skullcrusher.”

Vandra shook her head. “Not seeing your point here, Little Thorn.”

“There will be silence at once!” Alexandros said, his voice resonating throughout the chamber. No one spoke. Not a single sound dared defy him.

“You there. Paladin, what is your name?” Alexandros asked.

The Paladin who had been watching over Monty and Aranza bowed. “Temperance, Lord Guildmaster,” the Paladin, Temperance, replied. “Temperance of House Ravencroft, gladly at your service.”

“Very well. I have made my decision,” Alexandros said. “These two thieves shall be tasked with eliminating problematic foes of the Guild, saving those in need as an extension of our goodwill and grace.”

Aranza bowed. “Your kindness is a gift,” she said. Monty snorted, holding back a laugh.

Alexandros held up a finger. “Do not think you will be without a watchful eye,” he said. “The moment you step out of line, and I am certain you will, you will be brought back here for your very public execution.”

The room fell silent for a moment.

Alistair cleared his throat. “In case you needed a less subtle hint, Paladin Temperance,” he said. “You may now leave with these two under your watchful eye. We’ll have your first quest passed along to you shortly.”

“I…” Temperance said, trailing off.

The magical barrier around Monty and Aranza vanished. Monty reached out and patted Temperance on the back.

“Don’t fret, good Paladin,” he said. “I’m sure this will be exactly what we expect it to be.”

Piece 12 – Peace, Even if By Force

The Treants and Orcs were frozen, their attention shifted from each other to Curian. She had started screaming every foul word she could think of in every language she knew foul words to borrow from the moment the Orcs had emerged.

“The small one can hold a great deal of air for her size,” Gnarlroot muttered.

Kil’Gronn nodded in silent agreement.

“Just give her a moment,” Sophia said. “She gets like this when she’s very upset, I’ve found, and it’s best to let the anger run its course. It’s been an eventful…”

Curian paused, glaring at Sophia. “You were going to say it’s been an eventful day, weren’t you?” she snapped.

Sophia winced. “That is within the realm of possibility.”

Curian stomped over to Sophia, her fists clenched tightly at her sides. She stormed over to Kil’Gronn, eyes narrowed, and jabbed a finger in the Orc’s direction.

“It might have been a eventful day. Or even week. Who knows?” Curian ranted. “If the Orcs and Treants would just take a break from murdering each other, maybe we could find out? But no. Nooooo~!”

Curian stormed over to Gnarlroot’s towering roots, kicked them, and let out a pained roar.

“Had to break Time!” Curian screamed.

Kil’Gronn stepped forward. “It’s hardly that simple! They murdered our people!”

Gnarlroot rumbled. “You cut down our brethren,” he replied. “Desecrated their remains for your shelters and burned them for warmth!”

Curian let out another roar. She pointed at Kil’Gronn. “Enough!” she snapped. “Same goes for you!” she added, jabbing a finger upwards towards Burlknot.

Sophia stepped forward, placing a hand on Curian’s shoulder. Curian clenched her teeth but said nothing as she visibly focused on breathing.

“I think perhaps we need to discuss this further,” Sophia said. “Gnarlroot, this was your home before the Orcs arrived, yes? Do you recall what happened?”

Gnarlroot scratched at his crown. “Only through stories passed down, I suppose,” he conceded. “I was but a sapling when Elderbark was felled and burned.”

“And you were only a child when Gronn was killed,” Sophia said. “I’m so sorry to ask this, but you said you were there. Did you see anything?”

Kil’Gronn winced, the pain on her face contagious. The other Orcs looked away, tears welling in their eyes.

“I only saw their shadows, but that was enough,” Kil’Gronn said. “My grandfather was torn limb from limb.”

Burlknot grumbled something, averting his gaze.

“Now you’ve got something to say? Spit it out, you cowardly conifer!” Curian shouted.

The Treants gasped collectively.

“You’re going to stop fighting, damn it, and we’re going to talk,” Curian said. “Or I’ll fight all of you!”

Warpt Factor – Installment 11

Izzy held her finger above the big, red button. It was the oft-spoken about, often-depicted Big Red Button. Izzy tried to keep her attention on the four world leaders she had very much gained the attention of by threatening to atomize their planet, but the button kept grabbing her attention. It was a bit underwhelming.

“You’ll kill us all if you do that,” the Supreme Leader said flatly, the sweat rolling down his face as he spoke.

Izzy shook her head. “Doubt it,” she replied. “A big, scary bomb like this doesn’t show up for free. It’s to look scary and sound scary, but there’s definitely fine print attached to it.”

Prime Minister Todan raised an eyebrow, a hint of a smile on her face. “I wonder if you’re right,” she said. “How to determine such a thing?”

“Todan, have you gone mad?” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This isn’t a matter of trial and error. She presses that button and none of this matters. The Rigellians and the Ruklans all…” Geln trailed off, realization bright in his eyes.

“Press the button,” President Kelran said.

Fontaine gasped audibly, having regained consciousness just long enough to hear the exchange, process the gravity of the Big, Red Button, and faint back into Professor Everest’s arms.

“If this actually kills us, might I offer my heartfelt apologies and a hearty oops,” Izzy said, pressing the button. A countdown appeared in the upper right corner of the monitor, beginning at 30.

“You know, this is highly irregular,” CMO Carter said. “I’m beginning to fear you’re not exactly fit to lead such a complex mission.” It was a type of doubt Izzy had grown accustomed to and learned to ignore.

Izzy instead offered a smile. “You seem nice enough, CMO Carter,” she said. “Smart, I’d bet. Looking forward to getting to know you better. How’s about this? If we all die, you’re right and wow will I be embarrassed. If I’m right, you join my crew. We could use a medic.”

CMO Carter blinked a number of times, her response stopping short of being spoken as her eyes kept moving back to the countdown.

“This wasn’t planned for at all.”

“Shit. Shitshitshit. What do we tell the Weapons Master?”

“Transmission received. Response pending…”

A sigh. “Something tells me he already knows.”

Long strings of red text, unintelligible coding language, moved up and down the display, the countdown suddenly disabled. At the same time, the Supreme Leader let out a startled cry.

“My Superheated Plasmoid Barriers are down!” the Supreme Leader shouted. “You monster, you’ve let the Ruklans right into my palace!”

General Inar’s communicator began to chirp madly. He glanced at it, then to the three leaders. “A million pardons, but these are all…Quite urgent. Excuse me.” He walked to the back of the room, towards the entrance, briskly before answering the first of many commlink calls.

Izzy couldn’t stop smiling.

“The timer,” CMO Carter muttered. It had stopped between numbers, a solid block of black.

“Color me awestruck,” Professor Everest said. “Brilliantly done, Captain!”

“Lieges of the Citadel,” General Inar said, returning. “Our troops are reporting their weapons have failed. None are functioning as the should.”

“Excellent! They will be taken into custody and interrogated,” the Supreme Leader said. “Whoever gives up the location of your wretched Citadel will be given a light sentence.”

General Inar held up a finger. “They have reported the Rigellian weapons are not working either,” he added. “The troops have set down their weapons and are…Conversing, from the chatter I’m picking up.”

“Conversing?” Prime Minister Todan asked, smirking.

President Kelran held a hand up. “It would appear there is much to discuss,” she said.

The Supreme Leader deflated, the bluster gone from him. “May a moon fall upon my house, I never thought I’d arrive at the day when I’d say this,” he said. “You’re right. We have much to discuss indeed.”

Izzy held up a hand. “Slow it down a little there, buddy,” she said. “Let’s start off with an easy-peasy question to answer. What’s your name? You weren’t born as Supreme Leader, or if you were I don’t know how you dealt with the bullying.”

Prime Minister Todan stifled a chuckle. Archbishop Geln shook his head, but a hint of a smile played at his lips.

“Calvin Rigellus, of the ruling Rigellus family,” the Supreme Leader, Calvin, replied. “Captain what was it, again?”

“Izzy Warpt,” Izzy replied.

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “I would expect these talks could only benefit from you and your crew present,” he continued. “Are there any objections among the Ruklan leadership?”

“I should think not,” President Kelran said, looking to the Archbishop and Prime Minister.

“Then it’s settled,” President Kelran said. “Should I assume you will be expecting us shortly?”

Supreme Leader Calvin nodded. “Our mutual troops appear to have set up small encampments around the Palace, so I’ve requested the staff to begin preparing suitable rations for all.”

“I’d like to bring Captain Warpt along if that’s quite all right,” Prime Minister Todan said.

“I see no issue with your request so long as Captain Warpt does not,” President Kelran said.

Izzy raised an eyebrow. “No problem here as long as you don’t try anything shady with my crew,” she replied. “No surprise imprisonment, please. Not a fan of that kind of thing.”

“We wouldn’t dream of it,” President Kelran said.

Prime Minister Todan rose from her throne gracefully, gliding down the stairs. She stood at least twice as tall as Professor Everest. Two of her arms were folded behind her back.

“This way, Captain Warpt,” Prime Minister Todan said, leading Izzy to a small alcove off to the side of the Citadel’s main chamber. Izzy followed, stopping at the wall they reached. The Prime Minister placed her right hand against it. A panel flashed with a dully, mossy green light for a brief moment. When the light had gone, the area that had illuminated was replaced by a simple doorway. Beyond it was a cavernous chamber lined with burrowing tanks similar to the one they’d arrived in.

“Easiest way to travel is to do so unseen by prying eyes,” Prime Minister Todan said.

Izzy chuckled. “A friend of mine’s got a similar philosophy,” she said, following the Prime Minister.

“I’d ask you listen and consider what I have to say with care,” Prime Minister Todan said. “With some measure of luck, perhaps my words will have some use to you.”

“Listening,” Izzy said. “Ears wide open.”

“You seem to be a clever young woman, full of energy and enthusiasm,” Prime Minister Todan continued. “Not everyone you meet will appreciate that. Some will twist it and try to use those qualities against you.”

“Uh-huh, I’m already noticing,” Izzy muttered in response. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

Prime Minister Todan shook her head. “I’ll have no apologies from you, young Captain. Your bold approach was exactly what Rigel Six needed. Not just the Ruklans. Not the Rigellians. All of us. I’d very much like to send my regards to your commanding officer on your performance here.”

Izzy stopped dead in her tracks. “Ah, yeah,” she said. “Maybe…Oh, right. Duh. This was actually a very secret mission. Couldn’t discuss much with my immediate CO, so best to keep it under wraps.”

Prime Minister Todan stopped and smiled. “Is that so? In that case, your confidential mission will remain as such for the time being.”

“Can you make sure you mention that to the others, too?”

Prime Minister Todan’s smile was a warm, summer day back at home for Izzy, pure comfort in a simple gesture.

“Don’t you worry about them,” Prime Minister Todan said. “I’ve got my ways of sorting them out, whether they realize it and admit it or not.”

They arrived at a plain tank, unremarkable in its outside appearance. Its front hatch opened, revealing a luxuriously comfortable interior. Izzy ran past the Prime Minister, leaping into the cushioned seat. She felt the tension leaving every fiber of her body as she settled in, the Prime Minister joining her.

“One last thing,” Prime Minister Todan said as the tank closed up and began its ascent. “How are you with formal dinners? I suspect this one will have all of the trappings of one.”

Izzy wrinkled her nose. “Never been to one? Last time I had to do something even a little fancy I got my family banned from the restaurant, but to be fair it was awful and stuffy and full of people who thought their farts had greater worth than us.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Prime Minister Todan chuckled. “Did I mention you’ll certainly be the guest of honor? May want to consider having a few words prepared before we arrive, Captain Warpt.”

Follow the Ashes: A Tale of Two Rulers

Cas paced, piecing together what the curious man in equally curious clothes–no, more a costume, really–had told her.

“So your name is Bertram,” Cas said. “And this is the second time we’ve met, correct?”

“Bertie to my friends, and I like to think of you as a friend,” Bertie corrected. He added, “Third, technically, as I did knock you unconscious prior to the reboot that lead us here. Sorry about that, by the way. A necessary evil.”

Cas stopped, turning to look at Bertie. She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “Reboot?” The rest of what Bertie had said processed.

“Hang on, you said you knocked me unconscious?”

Bertie offered a half-hearted smile. “It’s complicated and we haven’t the time for me to properly explain,” he said. “You’ll remember some day, I hope. Meanwhile, do you understand why I’m just approaching this in such a forward way?”

Cas nodded. “I have an assassination attempt to stop, but I have to do it right or Junction will be decommissioned. I feel as though I should know what that means, but…” She trailed off, a dull pain creeping in behind her eyes.

“Easy does it there,” Bertie said. He patted Cas on the shoulder. “The celebration is winding through Junction towards the Room of Unity. Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus is preparing her remarks there.”

“And Gin of Datum Junction is moving to the Nexus of Unity to make her way to assassinate Regina,” Cas said. A brilliant starburst of agony erupted, her vision briefly going entirely white. Cas faltered, steadying herself.

Two faces drifted across her vision, afterimages imprinted against the backdrop of the field she and Bertie stood in.

“Are you all right?” Bertie asked, the concern on his face both apparent and sincere.

“There’s more to all of this than just a murder plot,” Cas said. “That’s all very old-timey Scottish play, but I remembered something more to it that I’m not sure I should know?”

Bertie scratched his head. “Forgive me my confusion, but I’m not certain that’s how memories work. I hope I didn’t administer too high voltage a jolt.”

Cas frowned. “We’ll return to that point of conversation later,” she said. “I have two lives to save.” She took off across the field before Bertie could respond, unaware someone else was crossing the field towards Bertie from the opposite direction, also watching her intently.

The crowds were dense, and Cas had to navigate them with great care. She stole a spare mask from one of the many people enjoying a tall glass of potent-smelling alcohol and donned it, its sparkling features hiding her own quite well. She feared she would be recognized by someone and stopped, but somehow she found herself at the doors to the Room of Unity. Guards stood posted at either side, their smiles warm but their grip on their weapons sent another message entirely.

“Early arrival, I see,” said the guard to the left of the door, her eyes sparkling in the LED lighting. “I understand, it’s hard to not be overwhelmed with joy. Just a few minutes and we can let you in.”

Cas hesitated, a dozen possible responses sprinting through her thoughts before she settled on one. “I can hardly contain my excitement,” she said, offering a polite bow of her head. “I waited all day, hoping to get a good vantage point from which to see the Lady Imperious deliver her speech, as it’s…” She paused.

“It’s the anniversary of my arrival in junction,” Cas said at last.

The guards leaned towards each other, and a whispered conversation ensued. They opened the doors, just barely.

“In you go, but don’t tell anyone,” the guard to the right of the door said, her smile warmer than the false torchlight. “Joyous Junction Anniversary to you, deary.”

“You have my deepest gratitude,” Cas said, rushing through the doors.

The Room of Unity was dizzying in its size, but the focus was clearly on the throne at the heart of the room. A dozen or so guards surrounded the small, square dais, all heavily armed. Their attention wasn’t on Cas, however, but the numerous doors along the walls that had started opening to allow the many people in who had previously been celebrating their way toward the Room of Unity.

Cas knew time was short, but how she would achieve the outcome she knew she needed to occur wasn’t a thought she’d managed to come across.

“Damn it,” Cas muttered to herself, the crowd filing in around her. She was as close as she could get to the throne’s dais without encroaching upon the guards’ space, but she couldn’t quite remember where the cloaked figure would appear. There was a cloaked figure, wasn’t there? There almost always was under such circumstances.

Time seemed to slow as Lady Imperious Regina Andromedus was announced, and Cas caught sight of the cloaked figure at the edge of her vision.

She watched herself call out that something was wrong, only for the cloaked figure to be taken down by the guards.

At the same time, she also saw what happened when the cloaked figure succeeded.

“Regina,” Cas muttered. “Gin.” She blinked hard, slapping herself on the forehead.

“Gin!” Cas shouted, her voice carrying over the din of the crowd. Both the Lady Imperious and the cloaked figure froze, their eyes suddenly fixed on Cas.

They spoke simultaneously, their words not the same but their voices identical. The walls went white, and a large message appeared high above the center of the room.

“Error Located,” the message stated. “Initiating repairs…”

Cas was thrown backwards at startling speed, the Room of Unity racing far from her view as she hurtled through Junction and back towards the field. Aromas of food and drink and diesel rapidly gave way to wild onions and flowers.

She awoke in the field, standing at a simple, silver door. Once again, Cas was alone. She found herself puzzled, having lost a chunk of time without realizing it. Had she come across the door and gotten lost in thought over whether it was safe to proceed?

A telltale smudge of ashes occupied the door’s handle. Cas sighed, hoping that her time spent in the field–however long it may have been–had been well-spent. She opened the door and walked through, unaware of the message above her in the sky and equally unaware of the bustling city far behind her.

It was both a Medieval castle and a remarkably sleek series of metal spires, and it was alive with celebration. The Feast of Unity Day had commenced.

The message ready, quite simply, “Reboot successful.”

Bertie sat on a tree stump, a snifter of something exquisite in his hand. He swirled it, appreciating notes of caramel and tobacco, aware of his guest’s impatience.

“Why so sour, Gavin?” Bertie asked, taking a sip of his drink. “Was this not what you had hoped to observe? Junction is restored.”

Gavin’s robotic eye zoomed in on Junction, a series of statistics displayed only for him to see.

“She successfully defragmented your living hard drive,” Gavin said.

“One Regina, one Junction,” Bertie replied. “A pity she won’t remember until later. She saved thousands of lives.”

Gavin nodded

“Are you certain you don’t have time to pause and enjoy a drink?” Bertie asked. “It’s been so long since you last visited this sector, after all, and it seems like things are heading in the right direction for a celebration.”

Gavin shook his head. “Not yet, no,” he said. “There is much to be done still. Things are accelerating, but her memory remains as stubborn as ever. I have much to do before she and I can meet again.”

Bertie sipped his drink again. “Do you think she knows you pursue her through this twisted maze of memory?”

“How poetic of you,” Gavin said as he turned to leave. “No. But I continue to be careful to keep an eye on her.” He tapped his cybernetic eye, offered a quick wink, and disappeared, leaving Bertie alone on his tree stump.

“Such strange behavior,” Bertie mused to himself. “But then again, what do I know of siblings.” He shrugged, returning his attention in equal measure to the city in the distance and his drink. Both brought him warmth and comfort.

Fireworks dazzled brightly in the simulated night sky above Junction, its people celebrating as one.

Warpt Factor – Installment 10

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances, then returned their collective gaze to Izzy.

“We will not rest until we are given what is owed to us,” Archbishop Geln snapped. “This war, thanks to the anonymous gift of weapons and armor, shall ensure as much.”

Izzy wagged a finger. “It’s a lot of shiny guns and ways to keep your people safe, but you didn’t once think to question where it came from? And if there’ll ever be a bill that comes due later?”

President Kelran smiled. “That is a matter we have already begun to address,” she said. “Our payment is the removal of Rigellians from power, which we find most agreeable.”

Izzy frowned. “Why’s that, though?” she asked. She turned to face CMO Carter. “You’re familiar with this. Explain, please.”

CMO Carter shook her head. “We don’t have the kind of time necessary for such an explanation, Captain Warpt,” she replied frankly.

Izzy tapped the tip of her nose with her right index finger, her eyes focused on a point well beyond the confines of the Citadel.

“Is there a comm-link in here I could use?” Izzy asked at last. “I promise this isn’t me just trying to buy time.”

The three Ruklan leaders exchanged glances once again, a muttered conversation going on among them.

“Out of the question,” Archbishop Geln snapped.

“And do you agree with that, Prime Minister Todan?” Izzy replied sharply.

Prime Minister Todan laughted, a soft and sinister sound that chilled the room.

“I will allow it,” Prime Minister Todan said, waving one of her hands.

A panel at the base of their collective thrones swung open revealing a screen and controls. It was rudimentary, and undoubtedly not the one used by the trio above, but Izzy knew it would suffice. She approached and began tapping away at buttons. The screen betrayed little of what input was being entered, and Izzy only paused her feverish typing to look up briefly.

“Sorry, total dummy moment,” Izzy said. “Any chance someone could tell me the signal to contact the Rigellian…” She glanced back to CMO Carter again.

“Supreme Leader,” CMO Carter provided.

Izzy winced. “Not a great start with that title,” she said.

“This young woman is wise, as I have been saying the same for years now,” Prime Minister Todan said. “Sol Nebula Gamma Foxtrot is the code you’ll need.”

Izzy entered the information provided and the communication link began to reach out. “Bingo!” she cried out. “Big thanks to Prime Minister Todan, the real star of these efforts so far.” She winked at Todan, and the color drained from Inar’s face.

“We’re all going to be executed for this,” Inar muttered. He leaned toward CMO Carter and added, in a whisper, “Prime Minister Todan is often referred to as Lady Death. She is quick to anger and does not allow for second chances.”

“Ah,” CMO Carter said. “This surely will end well.”

A round, anger-reddened face, framed by a receding gray hairline and a dense beard appeared on the screen. “You have the audacity to make contact as your troops storm the Palace.” He blinked as he seemed to register he was not speaking with the trio of Ruklan leadership.

“And just who the Hell are you, young woman?” the Supreme Leader demanded.

Izzy grinned broadly. “An exceptional question,” she said. “Gold star to you, Mister Supreme Leader of Rigel Six. I am Captain Izzy Warpt of the Lofty Albatross, flying under the banner of Spiral Reach Academy. We have come to de-escalate this situation.”

The Supreme Leader’s face reddened considerably more. “You should be stopping the lunatics with whom you are currently company! This is all their doing!”

“A fine thing to assert from your palace, as you continued to subdue us with excessive taxes while preventing us from voting,” President Kelran said.

“You’re not true Rigellians, and so why should you have the right to vote?” the Supreme Leader barked back.

Izzy rolled her eyes. “Listen, buddy,” she said. “Supreme Jerkface. I regret to inform you that I have an ace up my sleeve and so you should probably try to check that ‘tude at the door.”

The Supreme Leader narrowed his eyes. “Or what will you do?”

Izzy smiled. “Terrific question,” she said. “The longer answer is that nameless benefactors, which is a bonkers term since we’re talking a ton of death machines being gifted out of the blue, included an easily accessible list of the goodies they sent to the Ruklans should someone need it.”

Izzy paused for dramatic effect, leaving her crew looking particularly concerned.

“And so upon looking through that list of goodies, I found one that really grabbed my attention, pulled it in, and said it was up for a good time if I was,” Izzy continued.

The Supreme Leader leaned forward, his face looming larger on the screen. “And just what the Hell does that all mean to me? I’m safe in my bunker.”

“Party-pooper,” Izzy replied. “Short version of the answer, since that seems to be what you wanted, is that the Ruklans were provided with a secret, end-it-all kind of weapon, and it’s near here. I just happened to unlock it.”

“You did what?!” Archbishop Geln howled, leaping to his feet. The other two maintained their composure, though a hint of sweat made an appearance upon President Kelran’s forehead.

“Just in case you’re not sure why the good Archbishop here definitely just soiled himself,” Izzy said. “Sorry, by the way, I know that’s a total overshare. Where was I? Right.”

Izzy raised a finger and dramatically positioned it over a large, red button on the console’s control board. “There’s a Magnetar-Heart Warhead. I’ve got it primed and ready to go, so unless you four feel like maybe putting aside your differences for a bit I might just feel crazy enough to see what happens if I detonate this big, bad boy.”

Wanted Adventurers: The Heist, and A Secret

The Broker laughed throughout the meal, which was perfect and undoubtedly cost more gold than both Aranza and Monty had combined. Dessert arrived–candied fruits served with caramel sauce and saffron cream accompanied by the three glasses of mead–and The Broker perked up significantly.

“Have we got a deal?” The Broker asked.

Monty turned to Aranza, smiling. “The heist to end all heists,” he said. “We could take the payment and enjoy retirement far from our troubles.”

Aranza smiled in response, holding up a finger as she reached into the leather pouch at her side. She produced a scroll held shut with a wax seal.

“Didn’t think I’d have to break this out so soon, but here we are,” Aranza said. She offered the scroll to Monty.

“What’s this?” Monty asked, turning the scroll over in his hands. “I thought we had agreed on to not have any contractual agreements in our mutually beneficial companionship.”

Aranza shook her head. “No contract at all, friend,” she said. “Just a long-running list of the bad ideas you’ve dressed up as our ticket to freedom from our past. Some of the examples even have pictures. Drew those when you were going on about other big, great ideas.” She leaned back, hands behind her head, and shot Monty a wink.

The Broker cackled. “What a delight she is,” he said.

Monty turned the scroll over in his hand. “It’s sealed, though,” he said. “That must mean you’ve come to your senses and now understand I have excellent ideas.”

Aranza chuckled. “Oh, honey, that’s cute,” she replied. “I’ve got at least six more of those and one in the works. I might have to devote a whole-ass scroll to just this dumb idea.”

The Broker leaned forward, the smile gone from his face. “What if I sweetened the pot?” he offered. “I can’t say much, what with client-Broker confidentiality, naturally, but there are a few especially juicy details you might be interested in. Care to hear?”

Monty glared at The Broker. “You were holding out on me?”

“No, no,” The Broker said, wagging a finger. “Not you. I know you’re interested. I was talking to the discerning, charming young orc woman who has clearly been keeping you alive.”

Aranza snorted. “Flattery doesn’t pay for food or grog,” she replied.

The Broker held up his hands in mock-surrender. “But of course! This, however, is information that is more valuable than gold,” he explained. “And I suspect you’re the kind of clever that could put it to good use.”

“You’re the kind of guy who doesn’t give something for nothing,” Aranza said. “What’s in it for you?”

The Broker offered a Cheshire smile in response. “I share these very valuable details with you and then you must accept being part of this heist,” he responded. “You’ll find the two things are quite inextricably intertwined. A puzzle wrapped in an enigma, battered in a riddle, and then fried in a conundrum.”

Aranza shook her head. “How’s about we eat dessert first and then you tell me?” She pointed at The Broker’s face. “You, uh…You’ve got a little drool.”

Dessert was enjoyed in silence, Monty occasionally stealing glances at the scroll Aranza had given him. The Broker dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a handkerchief.

“Lean closer, please,” The Broker said to Aranza. “I don’t bite, I promise.”

Aranza narrowed her eyes. “You do and it’ll be the last bite you ever take,” she replied. She leaned closer, and The Broker whispered something that made her jaw fall slack.

“Griffinshit,” she muttered.

“All from reliable sources, as all of my sources are reliable,” The Broker said, wagging a finger. “You are not to share that information with a soul. Let it serve you well, and it will serve you well.”

Monty opened his mouth, and was immediately hushed by The Broker.

“Absolutely don’t tell this one,” The Broker instructed Aranza. He turned his attention to Monty. “I won’t lie and suggest no offense was meant, as you’re a darling and you’re so reliable. You also can’t keep a secret to save your life.”

“So very happy I could arrange for you two to meet and torment me over dinner,” Monty huffed.

“Trust me, Mont,” Aranza said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Just trust me.”

Monty studied her face for a moment, waiting for the smirk. The chuckle. Anything to indicate some levity, but such a sign never arrived.

“Here are instructions,” The Broker said, handing a small square of parchment to Aranza. “Follow them precisely, and when the time is right they’ll sort themselves out. As for you, my dear Monty? Listen to your Orcish partner-in-crime and don’t die. Can’t pay you if you’re a corpse, you know.”

He gestured to the glasses of mead before them, grimacing. It was a necessary evil to seal their pacts–the original pact Monty had set out to satisfy with The Broker, the whispered pact with Aranza, and perhaps more.

“To success,” The Broker said, raising his glass.

“To obscene riches,” Monty added to the toast.

“May the Gods be with us in our journey, or at least have the decency to greet us if we die,” Aranza concluded.

“I’ll certainly drink to that,” The Broker said.

The trio chugged their mead. Aranza drained hers first, loosing an impressive belch upon completion.

“You really get the notes of wildflowers, you know,” Aranza said, wincing, “when it creeps back up your throat.”

The Broker and Monty both finished drinking their mead, similar looks of disgust on their faces.

“No need to be so colorful with your language unless your goal is to make one of us revisit that foul brew all over the table,” The Broker snarked. “The pact is sealed, then. Payment will occur once my client is thoroughly satisfied.”

“Nothing out of the ordinary there,” Monty replied.

The Broker gave a slight nod, clapping his hands three times. The valet appeared at the table with two leather satchels. They handed one to Monty, then one to Aranza.

“Parting gifts, as we discussed,” The Broker said. “The sun should be low on the horizon, and you’ve both got places to be.” He averted his gaze elsewhere to indicate he was finished with having company.

***

The Guild’s headquarters was an unremarkable building left of center to the main crossroads of Valarmount, and often referred to as the heart of the city. Only Guildmembers were allowed entry, and so the true nature of the headquarters was only known through rumors. The one detail that remained consistent was a simple warning: no one who valued their lives would cross the Guild by trying to enter without invitation.

“You seem to have warmed to this,” Monty whispered, sidling up to the back wall, his nightshade cloak rendering him inconspicuous enough in the low light of dusk.

Aranza rolled her eyes. “You know I’m not telling you anything.”

Monty held his hands up in mock surrender. “I would not dare attempt to break your oath to The Broker,” he replied. “I don’t suppose he provided some information on how to get in, though, did he?”

“He did,” Aranza said. Her eyes were fixed on the horizon. The last of the sun’s rays, barely visible through the clouds, crept from view. The clock tower began to chime, and Aranza counted along under her breath with each chime.

The bell sounded for a fifth time. Aranza grabbed Monty by the arm and pulled him towards the wall–stone, iron, and very solid as it was–and the two passed through as if it were fog drifting about a field. The room they found themselves in was cramped, an extinguished torch mounted on each wall.

Monty turned around and placed a hand against the wall, finding it quite present.

“You have additional steps to follow beyond that initial one, yes?” Monty asked, a hint of concern bleeding through in his words.

Aranza held a finger up as she considered the room. She retrieved a small scroll from the leather satchel The Broker had given her and unfurled it, her eyes darting from the curious writings on it to the walls and back. She reached into the leather satchel and produced a ruby vial. She removed the stopper, whispered something into the container, and replaced the stopper. Liquid within the ruby vial glowed with a brilliant light.

“Hope your friend’s half as smart as he thinks he is,” Aranza muttered as she removed the stopper again and poured the glowing liquid onto her free hand. The glow spread to her skin, her palm radiating light.

“The path ahead is open to those who know the way,” Aranza said as she reached out and ran her glowing palm down the torch on the wall ahead of them.

“The light will guide those who walk its path,” Aranza added, reaching out and touching the torch on the wall to her right.

“The way is hidden only to those who do not know to seek it,” Aranza said, an air of finality to her words, as she reached out to the torch on the wall to her left. She stepped back, standing next to Monty.

The three torches sprang to life, ruby flames curling upwards from them towards the ceiling. The floor shuddered, heaving upwards, and then down. A section of it sunk a little further, followed by another shudder. The process repeated, gradually revealing a spiral stone staircase that lead downwards. Whatever waited at the bottom of the stairs was bathed in a soft blue light.

“Only one way to go,” Aranza said. She followed the stairs downwards, Monty following close behind her. The walls were stone, until suddenly they weren’t.

The stone staircase stood in the middle of a vast chamber, its floor far below. The blue light, however, was from no torch. A faint glimmer of magic was all that stood between the room and a vast underground lake. Dark shapes, larger than any ship Monty had ever seen, glided through the deep blue distance and made the highborne elf feel very small and uneasy.

The staircase continued beyond the floor of the chamber, spiraling downwards to their end. The landing stood at the lowest point in a long chamber, the doors at the opposite end taking up the entire wall. Golden dragons framed the edges of the massive double-door, their ruby eyes fixed in sightless gaze upon the room leading up to them.

Aranza put a hand out, stopping Monty abruptly. She turned him to face her, eyes fixed on his.

“You trust me, right?” she asked. “I need you to trust me or this could fail.”

Monty glanced at the doors, then back to Aranza. “Treasure’s just beyond those doors, yes?” he asked.

Aranza nodded.

“Not just treasure, is there?”

Aranza hesitated, then shifted her head upwards ever so slightly.

“I trust you,” Monty said. “We’ve traveled this long and far together. If I die in your company, then I will have peace.”

“Sweet of you, but I’d bring you back from the dead just to knock some sense into that vacant head of yours for being so dumb as to bite it too soon,” Aranza said. She walked along the incline of the room, pausing at the doors until Monty was there by her side.

Rings of light, interwoven and ever-moving, danced along the elaborate carvings in the wooden doors’. Aranza glanced at the scroll, noting the instructions once again.

She unsheathed one of her many concealed daggers and stabbed it into the tail of the dragon nearest to her. The spells stopped moving on the door, their barely-visible lines suddenly blinding, bloody red. The ruby eyes of the dragons began to flash as well, a deafening roar piercing the air.

At least a dozen knights emerged from hidden passageways along the walls at a full sprint, surrounding Monty and Aranza in seconds.

The captain, whose armor was far more decorated and elaborate than the others’, stepped forward.

“And to what end do you try entering The Guild’s vault?”

Aranza straightened up, staring down the captain. “We seek to serve the light, and so we hurl ourselves to the darkness to find our way into its sight.”

Monty blinked, hesitating. “Yes, absolutely what she said,” he added as their arms were shackled behind their backs and they were marched away from the vault and its treasures.