Welcome! Thank you for taking the time to read the latest installment in our new book. If you’re just joining us, you may prefer to start at the beginning. The Introduction, which is beneficial to understanding the story, can be found here. If you would rather jump straight into the story, click here for Chapter 1.
At the base of a 400-year-old oak tree, in a pub overgrown with moss and leaves, Bogmenak sat alone at a table drinking a local ale that he wasn’t particularly enjoying. The morning’s council meeting had not gone the way he wanted. He had not been able to talk nearly as much as he would have liked and when someone seemed to share his anti-human views, they hadn’t appreciated his support. The committee to which he had been assigned had given him leave, saying they were already well aware of his opinion. He sat at the pub quietly fuming to himself, sure that the council would once again fail to take any substantive action. There were too many councilors who were against violence and almost as many who still felt that humans should be ignored. Either opinion, in his view, would lead to certain destruction. He liked the stance of the Hantu Air and the Sylphids, but neither queen nor anyone in their entourage would acknowledge him.
A couple of tables away to Bogmenak’s left sat a rather young and tall soul of elvish descent dressed in a hooded coat, his face turned away from the light as he hunched over the table. Bogmenack had noticed the young one when he came in—elves were difficult to miss for many reasons. For Bogmenak, what bothered him most was their smell, which was too sweet and too close to that of European flowers for the desert dweller’s liking. He might have moved further away to avoid the stench, but this elf was a hybrid, bark covering his forearm and shins, so his fragrance wasn’t quite as bad.
Deep into his thoughts and the third pint of ale, Bogmenak had all but forgotten the elf was present when the young one stood up and walked softly over to his table. “You’re one of the desert councilors aren’t you?” he asked. “My name’s Freyr, from the land along the sea known as Gahada. I heard your speech to the council this morning. I like what you had to say and would like to talk with you if you don’t mind.” The young soul pushed back the white-blonde bangs that had fallen onto his slender face, hiding his well-chiseled features.
“Shouldn’t you be in another meeting about now, Councilor Freyr?” Bogmenak asked bruskly without looking up.
“I would ask the same of you,” Freyr said as he helped himself to a seat and leaned in closely. “I don’t think the committees like what either one of us has to say”
“I don’t think the committees like how you smell, elf,” Bogmenak shot back. “Feel free to back yourself up so that fragrance isn’t quite so intense.”
Freyr sat up slightly and adjusted the bow slung across his back. “I just know our opinions are not popular among most in the council. I was hoping we might form our own alliance so that we can be heard.”
“I’m heard,” Bogmenak countered. “I’m rarely heeded, but no one says Bogmenak is never heard. I don’t need any help in that department, especially from an elf.”
Freyr turned back toward the shadows and said, “So, you’re no different than the others, all talk, no action. You enjoy big drama but you won’t risk getting your magic dirty.”
Bogmenak responded angrily by tossing a barbed tumbleweed at the back of the elf’s head. Freyr deftly blocked the attack, causing the crumbled pieces to land in Bogmenak’s ale. The grumpy magician pounded a fist on the table and growled, “If we were not in a public space I’d pummel you, you arrogant snot dripper!”
“To no avail, old soul. I am of royal birth, my magic is greater than yours without me even trying,” Freyr said with his back still turned.
Bogmenak fumed, “Royal? Then what in the name of hadeivas hotweh are you doing in here complaining about being heard? You have passage to the queen, do you not?”
Freyr shook his head. “I renounced all traces of royalty; it is an outdated and ridiculous system of which we have no need. All manner of magic souls deserves to lead and have their voices heard, not just those born to privilege.” He re-adjusted his bow as he stood up. “If you are not interested in the overthrow of the queen, then I will go elsewhere.”
Bogmenak reached up and grabbed the young one’s coat, forcing him back to his seat. “Wait one damn minute. You didn’t tell me anything about usurping Apa’ii. You have a plan?” The councilor looked around cautiously. “And keep your voice down if you do. She is quite popular in these parts.”
Freyr looked over his shoulder, shifted his bow, and lowered his voice. “Queen Apa’ii only enjoys popularity here in the home tree. Everywhere else, magic souls are languishing. They have complained about gaps in their magic for many seasons. Only now, when it threatens the home tree, does she notice or bother to care. She has ignored their pleas for help, disregarded the human destruction of their sacred magic places, and given them no aid or assistance to fight off human aggression. Apa’ii is weaker than she realizes. Magic souls are ready to rise up. All they need is a strong leader. I was hoping that might be you.”
Bogmenak smiled, or, at least, the bristles around his mouth moved upward. He knew the dissatisfaction of the desert souls but was unaware that others felt the same. This was an opportunity worth considering. “How many in number do you think would follow?” he asked.
Freyr shrugged. “Certainly all those who live East and South of the mist. They have seen the humans turn their sacred spaces into lakes and amusement parks. Yet, Apa’ii’s edicts keep them from fighting back. They are ready to revolt. I do not know about those around Amaligme and Gowaneh, the great rivers. There are fewer places for one to hide as I travel Westward. Those in the desert you know well, of course, and I was quite surprised to hear that the pixiemandalons helped anyone with anything. They’ve been uncooperative on every level for many seasons. The magic souls out there are more independent and I’m not sure they would give the slightest heed to anything the council might say.”
Bogmenack considered the elf’s analysis. He knew of those allies in the desert he had cultivated. He hadn’t spent enough time traveling to know the political environment elsewhere. He was only mildly surprised to hear that dissatisfaction with the crown was widespread. Many thought Apa’ii was too old and needed to be replaced with someone younger. Others were ready to ditch the concept of a monarchy completely. Freyr was one of them and was likely influential among elves of his generation. As many times as Bogmenak had tried to unseat Apa’ii and failed, it seemed as though this current situation offered him his best opportunity yet. “How many of the council’s votes do you think we can sway?” he asked Freyr.
The elf looked up, having been mindlessly playing with a feather he had found on the floor. “Easily? A third. With some mild persuasion, more than half.” He twirled the feather between his palms then added, “I’m not sure that council votes necessarily matter, though. Many would just as soon disband the council. Even if the council adopts the queens’ proposal, there are more than enough magicians willing to act against it. I wouldn’t consider the council a deterrent.”
“What you’re telling me is that the magic realm is ripe for a revolution,” Bogmenak said carefully.
“No, phrase it that way and no one will go along with you,” Freyre said. “They want a change in leadership and then want to be left alone. They want to know that there’s unity when humans do something globally stupid, but they’re tired of the queen holding them back, especially when they look at the Hantu Air and Sylphids and see the freedoms they have.”
“But, for all their talk, neither the Hantu Air nor the Sylphids have been effective in their assaults, have they?” Bogmenak challenged. “Using their tactics and strategies could be dangerous.”
Freyr tossed the feather into the air then used a touch of magic to drive its quill deep into the top of the wooden table. “No one’s asking to repeat someone else’s failures. We simply want the freedom to deal with humans on their own, to address problems as they happen without needing the approval of a committee or a council.”
“That could lead to chaos,” Bogmenak warned. “Of course, I tend to like chaos, it can be rather useful at times.”
“What it could lead to is rule by magic rather than rule by humans. A return to the natural order, the way it was intended,” Freyr said softly. He stood up again, pulled his hood down over his face, and adjusted his bow yet again. “Think about it when you vote tomorrow. Nothing the queen proposes is going to pass on the first vote. Your opportunity is in that moment.”
No one in the pub seemed to notice as the elf slipped out the door. Bogmenak sat there wondering whether fate had granted him victory or insured his final defeat.
Deep in the hollow of the home tree were a number of rooms any one of which was impossibly larger than the massive tree itself. Magic used within the tree had allowed the boundaries of space and, when necessary, time to be altered to fit the needs of the moment. This particular moment called for a room with a high ceiling and a large lake to accommodate the visiting queens. As they arrived, they each filled their space and made themselves comfortable.
As Belinda spread across the top of the room she asked, “Do you think I came on too strong? I feel a bit bad about scattering your little ones like that.”
Dashan Sen eased into the waiting water and gave a deep sigh. “I think the Nawa’ Diyo have a whole new respect for all of us. The entire display was quite dramatic, even for us.”
Apa’ii smiled, filling the room with light. “As was predicted. Don’t worry about the little ones. They’re not nearly as fragile as they look nor as needy as they sometimes pretend. No one in the council needs applause in order to survive. What you did was guarantee that when we present a united plan in the morning there will be little dissent.”
“You don’t think Bogmenak or Gui will try to pull some kind of trick?” Dasheng Sen asked. “They both seem to have some disagreements with your current administration.” She paused and changed her form to that of a lovely flaxen-haired mermaid. “I’ve had similar issues with both the mer and the sprites from time to time. They can make a unified assault rather difficult.”
“And how do you think they’ll respond to our plan this time?” Belinda asked. “The magicians of the air seemed skeptical whether we can all actually work together. There are reasons for our realms being separate.”
“Those reasons are still valid,” Apa’ii said calmly. “These are special circumstances. Once we have everything back in line and the humans under control, we go back to our natural boundaries I don’t think it is within any of us to maintain the level of energy we’re going to need to make this work. Humans have developed a fearful habit of ignoring anything subtle from nature. They see the changes taking place, they can calculate the dangers that their actions pose, yet they do little, if anything, to change their habits. They put their comfort and convenience above everything else.”
“It’s not like we haven’t tried to warn them,” Belinda said. “By the way, Dasheng, those have been some incredibly impressive tsunamis you’ve been tossing around of late.”
Dasheng Sen smiled at the compliment. “Thank you. If only they did any good. Even when thousands of humans die at our hands, they mourn their loss for only a couple of sunsets and then go back to doing the same thing they were doing before. Those waves are getting more difficult to produce. The disturbance to our marine friends is severe and they are less inclined to be cooperative at the moment.”
Apa’ii changed her countenance to a calming blue-green. Her powers didn’t affect her counterparts in the same way as they did her subjects. Neither queen could be manipulated so easily. The mood change was still appreciated and the royal majesties basked in their momentary isolation.
“My only concern,” Apa’ii said after a long moment, “is the troubled ones. I know you saw them deep in the shadows. They were there and listening, something they’ve not done before. That tells me there is fear and a loss of magic among them as well. I do not expect them to respond in any manner we would consider rational. Where our efforts are strategic and calculated, their response is likely to be more severe. Where they see an opportunity, they’re almost certainly going to take it and I have practically no control over them. They are not pure Nawa’ Diyo. My magic only holds them for so long.”
“If your magic can’t hold them is there anyone who can?” Dasheng asked, obviously concerned.
Apa’ii’s answer was perhaps a bit more honest than comfortable. “I don’t know. We’ve never done anything to push them beyond my limits. I’ve always been able to talk them down when matters have become critical, but we could be opening a whole new door for them by allowing the use of magic unfiltered in the human world. I can’t imagine them not taking advantage of that.”
“But they’re susceptible to the magnetic fields as well, aren’t they?” Belinda asked. “If we’re having trouble, they are, too. Isn’t that was you said? How do we know they are not losing powers as fast or faster than we are?”
Apa’ii paced in slow, gentle circles. “You may be correct. Many of our councilors as well as home tree advisors say they were being chased through the mist. That’s an old trick they’ve not used in a few hundred seasons. Before, and mind you, this was back during the great wars, they would sneak up on those in the mist, chase them down, and steal their powers, or at least, the energy from their powers. I don’t recall there being anyone we couldn’t restore but it was still a frightening experience. That they caught no one while chasing many may be a hint that their power is waning. At the same time, I don’t know that they would be here if they weren’t in crisis already. They’ve always turned down invitations to join the council.”
“Who is their leader?” Dasheng asked. “Perhaps now might be a good time to talk with them, give them a choice so that we have some idea what to expect.”
“Our scouts were able to verify twenty-seven troubled ones in our mist this morning,” Apa’ii answered, “and none of them was their leader. His name is Wasnogai. He rarely leaves their mountain base. Going there is a bit trepidatious, no matter who one is. He doesn’t treat guests especially well.”
“If we went together?” Belinda suggested. “If he had spies in the mist I’m sure they caught our ferocious act and have reported how ‘angry’ we are with each other.”
“Or he might see our union as an attack and respond accordingly before we get there,” warned Dasheng. “Besides, those mountain areas are a bit on the dry side this season. I might have some challenges myself.”
Apa’ii twirled as she thought, casting off a spectrum of light that caused the two others to shield their eyes from the brightness. There was a lot at stake and while making a trip to elicit help from Wasnogai made sense, it also came with significant danger to all of them. A surprise visit would put him on the defensive. If they announced themselves, he would have time to set a trap. The trap would fail, of course, but it would be time-consuming and potentially dangerous to any soul nearby
When she stopped spinning, she looked up at Belinda and asked. “You’ve had dealings with Wasnogai before, haven’t you?” How did that go?”
Belinda stirred the clouds around her as she remembered the occasion. “It was not one I would wish to repeat,” she said as thunder rolled behind her. “He creates storms almost as strong as any sylphid. Our encounter came on account of him chasing after sylphids as they passed over the mountains. He carries a wicked whip and he would use it to strip lightning from our souls as they passed, giving them nothing to announce their wind and rain, making our own storms more dangerous for animals who respond appropriately to the lightning.
“When I tried to visit him, he built a great fire, sending a thick, black smoke up into my face. When I blew it out, he stomped hard with his massive feet, sending ember up into my clouds. I would send heavy rain and he would dam the runoffs and use the pools to shoot water spouts in my direction. We fought like this for three days, his troubled ones fighting just as hard alongside him as my sylphids did their best to keep them in check. By the time I finally wore him down there were new carvings in the mountains from all the erosion and a new river ran down into the desert. I don’t want to think how many souls might have been damaged in the process. Our magic was so strained that we could do little more than blow hot air for the next two seasons. I’m not up to another battle like that, not with the magic being unreliable.”
“So, our best chance is to catch him off guard,” Dasheng said, more to herself than anyone. She jumped into the lake for a moment then returned in a darker form with soft skin like that of marine mammals, a necklace of seashells around her neck, and black tentacles that held her up on the level as Apa’ii. “How many souls live in the valley nearest his mountain?”
“About 15 million,” Apa’ii answered. It’s a favorite place this time of season. They like making the mountain plants bloom.”
Dasheng Sen smiled a most wicked smile, the kind of smile that devils smile as they’re dragging a soul into the fires of destruction. “Leave him to me,” she said with a growl. “I’m betting a resident of the high dry country doesn’t know how to swim. Have your souls evacuate to neighboring valleys and I’ll have an answer from him before we meet in the morning.”
The queens howled with laughter so loud that the leaves of the home tree shook. Magic souls from the outside worried that the earth might be starting to move. Those inside the tree held on as the walls and floors around them trembled. Never had they heard such a sound coming from the center of the tree.
Pai was sitting on a limb just over half-way up he home tree watching the sunset and relaxing after a day full of meetings in which it was his job to represent the queen’s interests and uphold her point of view. That she had committed to a unified approach across all the realms made it easier for him to calm those who were panicking and back down those favoring a radical response. By the time resolutions were agreed upon and sent to the queen, he felt certain that the morning would see a peaceful joint resolution and that the worries of the day would soon enough dissolve into nothing as so many worries had done before.
Reclining against a cluster of trees, the queen’s consort had let his mind wander along the lines of pleasurable endeavors when Pockwatch flew up and landed on the branch near him. The senior advisor looked worn and worried as he approached. “You don’t look as though you fared too well, my friend,” Pai said a bit more cheerfully than his guest might have appreciated. “Please, have a seat and rest yourself. I can conjure some refreshment if you like.”
Pockwatch took a seat on a separate cluster of leaves but held up his hand to refuse refreshment. “I’m happy to rest my worn core for a moment, he said, “but relaxing with refreshment is not enticing right now. Tell me, how sure are you of our committee votes on the queen’s resolution for tomorrow? Did you leave sensing unity or discard?”
Pai thought a moment before answering, looking up at the darkening sky as though his response might be on a passing cloud. “There were certainly some contentious moments,” he eventually replied. “I thought at the time we had ended in full agreement but your question has me second-guessing my assessment. I may not have been as objective as thought. So, I can’t say for sure that they are truly united. Maybe some supported the recommendation so they could get out of the meeting and on to other things.” He paused again and then added, “I assume you ask because you are aware of some dissension. What is it you have heard?”
Pockwatch leaned back and crossed his legs. As dusk settled into night, the twinkling presence of the milky way filled the skies with color, creating a sense of calm and wonderment. “Not so much what I’ve heard but what I’ve seen. Our younger councilors feel too safe when they’re here around the home tree and don’t take care to watch their steps. Freyr, the young elvish hybrid from Gahada was talking with Bogmenak earlier. They seemed to be making some sort of deal, though exactly what I can’t say. Freyr then spent the rest of the day visiting with members of every committee. He seemed welcome everywhere he went. He has a dashing and somewhat charismatic demeanor to him that the smaller ones especially find attractive. One might get the impression that he was trying to build a coalition of disagreement among the councilors.”
Pai chuckled and sat up enough to show a level of interest that was not yet sincere. “Isn’t there always some young, good-looking upstart who thinks they have a better idea? You’ve seen how Apa’ii deals with them. They forget that there are no secrets around the home tree. She picks up on dissent quickly and uses her powers to stop it. When have you ever known of such a plan making it to the council floor?”
Pockwatch nodded, aware that Pai was dismissing his concerns. “You’re right, the queen’s magic is powerful and what she gets from the tree’s neural network alone should be enough to make us all watch our words carefully. Tell me, though, do you know of any spells that might block the queen’s powers to any degree? Or, perhaps, something that might give her false information, cause her to think everything is well when it isn’t?”
That question was enough for Pai to sit up completely and consider the possibility. He had known the queen for many seasons and seen her combat many challenges to her power and her decisions. One of her strengths was that she never seemed to be caught by surprise. She always was one step ahead of everyone else. Her powers of perception were too strong to be fooled easily and Pai couldn’t quickly recall a time when anyone had made too-serious of an attempt to try. “Not that I can recall,” he said. “A few have tried to shield their thoughts from her, but that tactic alone tells her they are being dishonest and she uses her various skills to find the truth. Do you think someone is trying such a thing?”
The elder counsel stood and began to pace a short distance along the branch. “I’m not certain. I do know that Freyr has been distributing quivers of arrows among some of his acquaintances large enough to handle them. There’s obviously some magic attached to them in the way that their feathers glow. What they are intended to do or how he plans to use them, I can’t say, but it does seem rather obvious that he’s planning something and that he doesn’t expect to be subtle about it. I know Apa’ii can block most magic but Freyr himself is royal, from a strong European lineage. He may well have magic that could cause problems for the queen.” He paused a moment, looking over the edge of the branch. “Would it help to have some of the arrows?” he asked, knowing the inevitable answer.
Pai gave him a stern and somewhat frustrated look that the advisor would bother to ask such a question. “If you could get one, why didn’t you bring it with you?”
Pockwatch grinned mischievously. “Because it just now became available,” he said, a hint of teasing implied in his tone. He pointed toward an area at the base of the home tree. “You can see for yourself, leaning against the wall outside that fragrance shop. I told you, they’re being careless. It’s almost as if they want to get caught.”
Pai stood and walked to the edge of the branch where he could see the quiver of arrows leaning against the door frame of the shop. Unlike Pockwatch, however, he wasn’t smiling. “That’s too easy. Elves have always guarded their magic closely, often with elaborate traps. I don’t think they’re being careless. I think they’re trying to provoke us into starting trouble.”
Pockwatch stood next to Pai, looking at the arrows. “You can read the magic from here, can’t you?”
Pai nodded. “Eight with mesmerizing spells, six stunners, and …” he gulped hard, “two core killers—death arrows. We’ve not seen those since…” his voice trailed off.
“The great wars,” Pockwatch said, finishing Pai’s sentence. “Do you think the soul to whom it was given knows that they had?”
Pai shook his head. “If one is not familiar with elven magic they can’t tell the difference. The way they’re typically deployed, the first few arrows, mesmerizers and stunners, create chaos and panic. Then, when no one is paying attention, the death arrows hit their target without anyone knowing who fired the shot. The anonymity protects the guilty. How many of these quivers would you say exist?”
“At least 100,” Pockwatch said solemnly. “Apa’ii was always cautious about trusting anyone of elven lineage. Their magic is tricky and doesn’t always do what one expects, which, again, makes the apparent carelessness all the more curious.”
“It’s a double-edged trap,” Pai responded. “The quiver is set out there in hopes we’ll see it, figure out its contents, then grow alarmed and try to confiscate them all. That will cause fear and distrust among the council so that they’ll argue and question each other’s motives. If we don’t take the bait, then they go ahead with whatever plan it is that they have. Either way, we have chaos that interrupts tomorrow’s vote.”
Pockwatch was silent for a while as they both watched souls coming and going through the fragrance shop. After several minutes, the shop’s owner closed the store and left. The quiver still sat unclaimed by the door. “Do you think we should tell the queen?”
“She knows,” Pai said calmly. “She’s doubled the guard and will apply some magic of her own. The arrows won’t be able to fly when they’re launched.”
Pockwatch was about to reply when the home tree shuddered in an unfamiliar way, one none of them had felt in many seasons. Pockwatch grabbed hold of the nearest leaf cluster and gasped, “Oh dear, that wasn’t what I think it was, was it?”
Pai was kneeling on the branch, holding on tightly to the bark. “Yes, someone with great magic just died. Apa’ii is trying to measure her reaction. I’m not sure she knows who it was but she’s furious. I need to go.”
Pockwatch blinked and Pai disappeared through a hidden door in the tree. Apa’ii would call for him soon, also, but it was not a summons he wanted to anticipate too soon. He watched as those below came out of their homes and hovels, already fearful at the loss they all felt. He tried casting a spell to find where Freyr was, certain one of his arrows had been the cause. The elf was nowhere in the community.
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By the time the council began to gather the next morning, concern over the mysterious death had grown with rumors circulating wildly as to who or what might be to blame. Some said it was humans who had captured another magical soul. Others worried that there was a natural cause, something completely depleting the magic until the core ceased to be.
What bothered Apa’ii most was the fear that the troubled ones had caused the death. That was the one fear she couldn’t easily explain away. Everyone knew they had been standing along the edge of the mist and that they had failed to catch anyone passing through. Never mind that they had never actually killed anyone before; the odds were leaning in their favor.
Councilors also speculated as to who the deceased might be. Death among the Nawa’ Diyo was rare on any account and most often it occurred as the result of an accident or a magic spell going wrong. Only the violent and unexpected death of a powerful magician could have possibly caused the home tree to shudder in the manner that it had. They each watched carefully for the arrival of the more prominent members of the council to arrive. Only when everyone had been recorded as present did the council begin to ease its fear in the slightest degree.
Apa’ii was most concerned that there seemed to be gaps in her magic. Normally, she would have known exactly who died and precisely how it happened. To not be able to discern those details only meant that some other magic had to be interfering. She momentarily wondered if perhaps the humans had some new technology that effectively blocked the magnetic waves that provided her the information she needed. That reasoning failed to make any sense, though. They had scouts and spies who not only kept a close watch on weapons development but also expertly sabotaged tests so that nothing new seemed to work. She also remembered how devastatingly clear she had felt all the deaths when the humans had detonated the two atomic bombs. She had felt the demise of each soul, knew every name. There had been no filter to prevent her from being overwhelmed.
What had happened this time was a new experience. The emotional impact of the loss had been strong enough to knock the queen off her feet before the whole community felt the death wave. She had been taken by surprise with no hint as to who was involved or why this had happened.
As Apa’ii prepared to address the council, she checked with both Belinda and Dasheng Sen. Both queens had felt the death wave but neither said they could determine its origins.
“This felt different than the loss of a magic soul, more external as though it were coming from a non-magic source,” Dasheng Sen told her.
“Definitely not the kind of loss I’m accustomed to, either,” Belinda agreed, “but my assumption was that it was because the death didn’t occur in my realm. In fact, that the death of a Nawa’Diyo bothered me at all makes this different. I’m rarely affected by the magic in your realm.”
Apa’ii nodded her understanding. Looking out over the assembled council, she could feel the unrest and anxiety building. “We aren’t doing ourselves any good by waiting. Let’s see how well this proposal is accepted.”
All chatter and small talk came to an abrupt end as the three queens made their way to the front of the Deyóhso:t. Apa’ii had warned the other queens about Freyr and the arrows already planted among the council members. They would be looking for signs of trouble.
Apa’ii’s countenance was bright as she stepped forward, overwhelming the smaller magicians closest to her. Her radiance filled the entire valley with a calming light as she began to speak. “My dear ones, it is with great pleasure and a sense of accomplishment that Dasheng Sen, Belinda, and I bring to you a joint proposal by which we hope to address both the incursion of humans into our realms and the shifting magnetic fields causing an unsettlement with our magic.”
That was as far as she got. From the back of the Deyóhso:t, emerging from the mist with a roar that shook the ground of the entire valley, stepped an army of troubled ones. Their appearance was frightening. Each one was as tall as a mature fir tree and twice as broad. Their cores were composed of red stone and dark pitch in what seemed to be an incomplete construction as the pitch didn’t quite cover all the stone. Their eyes burned a flaming orange and smoke rolled out from their mouths. Each one carried a shield to protect them from aggressive magic. The shields glowed crimson and gold, every one a different pattern of the holder’s design. They moved with precision as one body, coming up to the very edge of the Deyóhso:t, knocking councilors such as Kuveni to the ground as they moved forward.
When they had all emerged from the mist, some 600 of them, the largest and most fierce looking stepped forward and spoke in the most horrible and menacing tone one might imagine. Pointing a fist toward Dasheng Sen, it roared, “You have come to our mountain, flooding our valley, bound our leader, and drowned him in your dark water. You have killed Wasnogai. You all will pay! We will rule!”
The troubled ones charged forward together as a massive force trying to get to the queens. The members of the Dehnítaëh were caught off guard, precious seconds passing before they began flinging their spells in defense. Those larger souls toward the back were either pushed aside and trampled or ripped in half as the army pushed its way through. Kuveni took to the air, silently ripping off the head of a troubled one and slinging it into their midst. Her magic was strong and kept many of the middle lines from advancing at any speed, but she was not powerful enough to stop them all.
Freyr and his armed cohorts, their plans now useless, turned their arrows on the troubled ones only to find that Apa’ii’s magic had rendered them ineffective, each one falling to the ground as soon as the feathers cleared the bow. Other councilors of elven descent attempted to throw their powerful spells at the troubled ones but most were batted away by the magic shields. When a spell did hit its target, they did little more than stop the troubled ones in their tracks for a few seconds.
Apa’ii glared at Dasheng Sen and shouted, “This is your problem. Get busy!” She quickly put a protective shield around the smaller souls unable to defend themselves from the giants and moved them out of the path of the battle. Where she could, she shielded other small groups but could not as easily protect those already attempting to fight.
Belinda immediately began firing lightning bolts at the army. Each one was strong enough to disassemble three or four troubled ones, sending their pieces flying across the valley. Within seconds, dozens of sylphids and other air magicians emerged from the sky and began pelting the army with hailstones that burned, causing thick, black smoke to rise from the Deyóhso:t. Meliae and her clan soon joined and began using massive winds to keep the troubled ones from moving forward. From behind them, Dawágetdit created a line of tornadoes and sent them powering toward the back lines, leaving the army no path for retreat.
It had not taken long before Bockwimen had assembled all the available scouts and other Nawa’Diyo of significant power, forming a battalion that surrounded the Deyóhso:t. The air grew thick with the magic of every kind being used to try and stop the army.
Such a violent display of magic had not been seen since the great wars and never had this valley been part of any such aggression. Certainly, any human attackers would have been defeated within a matter of minutes.
The troubled ones were not as small and weak as humans, though. More than rock and pitch, the magic they possessed was as strong as that of any Nawa’Diyo and made stronger by the power of righteous revenge. Deftly, they used their shields to protect them. They threw bombs of molten lava onto the Nawa’Diyo who not under Apa’ii’s protective bubble, cause their cores to burn to a crisp. They belched a toxic smoke into the air, making it difficult for the sylphids to target them with precision and crippling Maliae and her clan. As many magic souls fell from the sky, not all were able to get up before their cores were crushed under the feet of the troubled ones.
Apa’ii, at her full size, removed councilors from the fray as quickly as she could. She looked around for Dasheng Sen but couldn’t find her. A wall of water would have been a welcome defense at the moment but the Hantu Air queen had disappeared. Apa’ii looked to Belinda, whose dark clouds seemed to meld with the black smoke and asked, “Do you think we can create a strong enough wind to take them off their feet?”
Belinda tossed a couple more lightning bolts into the darkness, not sure whether she had hit anything or not, before answering. “We might do better to move the ground under them. How loose are the plates beneath the crust here?”
Apa’ii gave the matter some thought as she tried to contain the troubled ones only to have them break through a gap in her shield. The mountains here were old and had not moved for thousands of seasons. Doing anything to change the landscape would require more magic than she had on her own. Together, though, the two queens might be able to conjure enough force to at least make the earth uneven enough to catch the troubled ones off balance. Their only option was to try. She nodded back toward Belinda and shouted, “Let’s give it a shot!”
The effect wasn’t noticeable at first. Belinda created a circulating wind that reached well outside the valley. As the wind gained in power, Apa’ii began applying a strong, downward pressure on the Deyóhso:t and the surrounding valley.
At that moment, the trees began to move back from the edge of the Deyóhso:t, not in the manner of pulling up roots and locomoting in any ambulatory sense but shifting the ground that contained them, moving both themselves and the earth so that there was more room for Apa’ii’s magic to work. As this made the forest denser, the fog from the mist rose and began to spread into the crevices, increasing the power of Apa’ii’s magic. Further and further the trees retreated, taking with them the homes and communities of magic souls, helping to keep them away from the detritus of the battle. Finally, the Deyóhso:t and all around it were clear of any innocent being. The battle was isolated and the troubled ones were without any means of retreat. Sensing the desperation of their situation, they pushed harder, grabbing magicians out of the air to either crush them in their hands or rip their core into pieces. Their feet pounded harder into the ground. The balls of lava grew larger, the splatter from their explosion wounding valiant fighters on the ground.
Bockwimen watched in horror as the number of his troops began to dwindle. He assembled those left, a smaller group of barely 100 souls, so that they might make a more strategic assault. Standing together increased the power of their magic. Together, they might produce enough power to begin driving back the troubled ones. To his left, Arviss and his brothers stood at the ready, the magic in their broadswords gleaming with power. To his right stood Bogmenak and Gui, equally fierce in their determination to fight back.
Bockwimen was ready to give the order to attack when Apa’ii’s protective shield appeared around them and moved them quickly out of the way. The ground where they had been standing gave way. The great winds coming down off the mountains blew with the strength of a dozen hurricanes. What had been a mist was an opaque magic blanket of power. As the ground yielded, up from the crevice came a massive slab of slate and granite surrounded by igneous layers, severing the lines of the troubled ones and disassembling the members of the army where they stood. As the ground rumbled throughout the valley, the massive wall of stone continued to grow until its base filled the valley and began to tower above neighboring mountains. Only when there was nothing left of the troubled ones but a pile of rubble and black mud did the mass stop growing.
In the resulting silence, Belinda pulled back her wind. The mist eased back into the forest. When she was quite certain that it was safe, Apa’ii eased the protective shields from around the Nawa’Diyo.
Slowly, with an abundance of caution, what was left of the Dehnítaëh began to assemble at the base of the new mountain. Many were injured, having had limbs torn off or wings removed from their backs. Others had their core singed by the flaming lava. What quickly became obvious was that their casualties had been severe. Fewer than 4,000 of the councilors survived. A mere 600 troubled ones had decimated the Nawa’Diyo.
Belinda took a bipedal form, her dark gray gown billowing like storm clouds as she walked down from the mountain to stand next to Apa’ii. What little that was left of the Deyóhso:t was covered in the ashes and broken cores of council members who had been the victims of the troubled ones. “I guess we know whose death we felt last night,” Belinda said with frustration in her voice. “I never would have expected an earth-bound monster to have any power to crush our air magicians.”
Apa’ii put her hand on Belinda’s shoulder. “Please accept my deepest apologies. I never expected them to behave so violently.”
“I only hold Dasheng Sen responsible for both our losses. She was sent to negotiate, not murder. Even if Wasnogai’s death was an accident, that she returned without telling us what she had done demonstrates her intent. For whatever reason, she wanted a war. She had to know they would retaliate.” Belinda paused, looking down at the growing crowd around the base of the mountain. Magic souls from the home tree communities came carrying mourning lights to commemorate the fallen. Even those who had no direct part in the battle looked beleaguered and worn. Each death had its effect on all the Nawa’Diyo. “Your souls have suffered greatly today. Do you think there will be more attacks?”
Apa’ii nodded. We’ll have to completely evacuate the high desert. I’m not certain how many trouble ones remain but I know this army was small compared to what they are capable of bringing. They underestimated us this time. I won’t expect that to happen again.”
A crown of sylphids began to form around Belinda’s head and as they cried it began to rain all across the magic realm. No one left. Together, they stayed at the base of the mountain as they mourned. For many, this was their first experience with battle and how it affected them all. They were afraid but also resolute. There were now deaths to avenge. All they needed was for Apa’ii to tell them where and when. If there was to be a war, they were determined to win.
As the sky cleared and the sun began to set, Apa’ii dimmed her countenance and stepped back into the shadows. She felt so much pain that she did not wish to be seen. So heavy a toll after so many years felt worse than she remembered. The queen had not yet begun to assemble a list of those who died. She knew the information was there for later retrieval but the energy to sit and memorialize each soul was not present. She ould give time for the news to spread to all the communities and then hold a more formal tribute.
Glancing down, she saw the shadow of a soul stealing away from the assembled crowd of mourners. “Where would you go now, hidden in the darkness?” She asked, shining a light on the surprised magician.
Bogmenak looked up with an expression of fear Apa’ii had never before seen on his face. “Please, I beg your pardon, your majesty but I fear I must return to the desert. My clan lives too close to the troubled ones to be safe. The monsters will assemble their forces and I fear our souls, despite their great knowledge of battle magic, would make too easy a practice target for an army looking to avenge their fallen leader.”
“Of course, you are correct. You have my blessing and as much protection as I can give you. Travel with haste and do your best to remove all magic souls from the high desert. Those who wish may come here and reside on this new mountain,” the queen said. “Do take note of those who choose to go elsewhere. We may need them or to rescue them later.” She paused then added. “And be careful as you cross the great rivers. Our enemy is plural. Dasheng Sen betrayed us and set us up to die. There is no trust to be given to the waters and the Hantu Air who control them. I might suggest you take your new friend Freyr with you for added protection.”
Bogmenak took a couple of steps back, stumbling over a rock and nearly losing his balance. He realized that the queen knew about their meeting and all they had planned. She had been the reason their arrows hadn’t worked. “I’m sorry, your majesty,” He stammered, fearing he might yet become the victim of her wrath. “I never intended…”
“I know what you intended, Bogmenak,” Apa’ii interrupted. “I also know you both fought valiantly against the troubled ones. You both lost comrades today. We will discuss your intentions when this is all over. For now, though, I call upon your loyalty to your clan and all the magic souls of the high desert and those entrusted to your protection. Get them out of there, Bogmenak. Get them out and keep them safe.”
Bogmenak bowed deeply and then disappeared.
Apa’ii began walking slowly back toward the home tree, re-evaluating everything that had happened, changes she might have made had she known what was about to take place. She was angry at herself for trusting Dasheng Sen and not making more of an effort to read her intentions. She also found it curious that the arboreal neural network had not told her that Wasnogai had been the one murdered. Such important information usually made its way to her quickly. That she had not known and been caught completely off guard was troubling.
As Apa’ii neared the home tree, she noticed another group of magicians gathered around the base with mourning lights. Her first thought was to ascend through the branches and enter the private area of the tree without attracting any attention. As she stepped closer, though, she realized they were building a shrine. Someone they all loved had fallen. She took a few more steps and saw a sword leaning against the base of the tree at the center of the memorial—the sword she had given the Pai, the sword that was supposed to give him eternal protection. Apa’ii dropped to her knees and let out a scream heard by every magic soul on the planet.
A young radar operator looked at the screen in front of her then reached for the three-ring binder that listed all the symbols and graphics that could be displayed on the monitor. She flipped back and forth through the pages where any corresponding graphic should have been but found nothing. She reluctantly pressed the button on her station summoning the lead meteorologist on duty, certain she was about to be upbraided for not recognizing the symbols she was supposed to have memorized.
“What’s up, rookie?” the meteorologist teased as he approached her station. “Don’t tell me you have a tropical storm brewing in the Poconos.”
“No sir,” she said, quietly rolling her eyes. “It’s this point here in Northeast Penn, sir. The book doesn’t have anything to explain that.”
The meteorologist looked closely at the monitor then reached over the operator, punching a few buttons on the keyboard to bring the image into higher resolution. “That’s not possible,” he murmured. “We’re going to need a lot more help. Call the folks at the U.S. Geological Survey. See if they show any seismic activity in the area. If I’m not mistaken, this is showing a mountain where there shouldn’t be a mountain and a tightly located storm around it. This makes absolutely no sense at all.”