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.
The ground around the base of the new mountain was still warm from the battle, steam rising around the crevices and fissures slowly healing from the abrupt and violent adjustment of tectonic plates. Where the ground was slightly cooler, memorials of flowers and medallions, pieces of the thousands of magic souls lost, sparkled in the dew of early morning sunlight. The population of magic souls in the home tree community more than tripled overnight as word of the council’s destruction at the hands of the troubled ones spread across the continent. Only the oldest among them could remember a sorrow as deep as what they were feeling together at this moment.
Some gathered in the bars and pubs, sharing the tales of magic lives over pints and bottles of specially-mixed healing elixirs. Others gathered outdoors in the shade of large flowers or the umbrellas of massive mushrooms that had sprung up from the tender soil overnight. Trees, having spread back to some degree to give themselves breathing spaces, saw their branches teeming with magic souls, many of whom had never ventured to the home tree. Together, they cried.
Mourning was so rare an experience among the Nawa’Diyo that few knew how to deal with the emotion. Pockets of violence popped up in isolated areas as anger over the loss overwhelmed young souls not accustomed to such strange feelings. Those who were older did their best to guide the younger ones forward through the traditions of the past but they found the rituals of seasons long ago inadequate for soothing their grief.
The largest of the memorials was around the base of the home tree where Pai’s sword seemed to drip with blood as it hovered in the air above the mounds of tributes offered to the fallen consort and counselor. No one could yet explain how he might have lost the sword intended to protect him. In the swirls of heat and black smoke, confusion had caused many to lose their bearings, becoming unsure of where they were or the closeness of the nearest troubled one. As many clamored to get out of the way, the collision of friends was inevitable. Dominant speculation held that had someone knocked the sword from Pai’s hand, even for a moment, he might not have been able to find it again in the darkness that had covered the valley. Many souls across the Nawa’Diyo had known Pai, his reputation as both a diplomat and a lover rapidly taking on the girth of legend as souls recalled their encounters with him.
While mourning lights continued to flicker around the base of the home tree, the massive oak itself had gone dark. Passageways to the throne room were shut down as no state visitors were yet allowed. Only a select few were permitted to attend to the grieving queen. Bockwimen had stationed guards outside her chamber and armed them with the strongest magic available. No entry was allowed without the queen’s explicit request, and she was making no requests.
No one could recall ever seeing Apa’ii’s countenance this dim. Even with the sun shining brightly, the souls felt the shadow from the loss of her ethereal presence. She spoke only regarding those few matters that required her specific attention. She gave to Pockwatch, whose own core was burned and chipped, the responsibility of arranging a public memorial pyre in the ancient traditions. She had asked Kuveni and Fleau, both representing large clans of magic souls, to oversee the recovery of broken cores and their identity if possible. All would be treated as heroes, martyrs to the freedom and protection of Nawa’ Diyo. Their names and legacies would be honored among magicians everywhere in every realm.
More than anything, however, Apa’ii cried. Never had she felt such a crushing pain and a sense of defeat. That the entire army of troubled ones had been disassembled was nothing to the fact that nearly 8,000 Nawa’ Diyo had died at their hands on her watch. She had not been strong enough to protect them all. She, for the first time, had not anticipated the attack. The gaps in her magic had left souls vulnerable to the wrath of the vengeful troubled ones. The losses, especially that of her dear Pai, pained her as deeply as though one of Freyr’s arrows had struck her core. Her tears were not abated as the account of each death now came to her one after the other. So heavy were the tears soaking into the whole of the home tree that moss began to grow on its bark.
Outside, Bockwimen had taken a defensive attitude, knowing that the troubled ones would not be deterred by a singular loss of such a small army. Assembling his scouts and assembling recruits, he sent them out to look for any signs of activity. If the troubled ones were to strike again, it likely would not be at the home tree. Their anger was not so much with the Nawa’ Diyo as it was with the Hantu Air. The problem was that while the two were distinctly separate realms, their physical proximity to each other was often close. Just as humans had settled near streams of water, so, too had the Nawa’ Diyo. The troubled ones had no distinction as to which realm they might attack.
At the same time, there seemed little doubt that the Hantu Air themselves were a threat. Bockwimen did not yet have the details of Dasheng Sen’s betrayal but the troubled ones made it quite clear that what was supposed to be a diplomatic mission had turned into an assassination. If Dasheng Sen would do that to one leader, she was inherently a threat to them all and the Nawa’ Diyo would need to be ready to defend themselves against her and the magic of the water realm.
Nawa’ Diyo had not maintained a standing army since the Dark Ages of humans and Bockwimen alone did not have the authority to raise one. While he felt certain that Apa’ii would give such an order once the period of mourning had passed, he could not in good conscience wait before making sure they would have the support they needed from the clans with the strongest history of warfare. Remembering who had stood with him prepared for the final attack, he went looking for Arviss and was not surprised to find him in a pub with a pitcher of grog. What did surprise him was that the dwarf was alone.
“I bring you greetings,” Bockwimen said as he sat down opposite the councilor. He looked quickly around the pub before asking. “Are your brothers not here with you this morning?”
Arvis shook his head, his hair frayed and his beard unbraided. I sent them home to recover,” he said in a quiet voice that belied his character. “Their injuries are many and the magic they need lies in our mountain, not here. I will stay through the mourning and then I will join them.” He paused long enough to take a drink from the pitcher in his hand. “I suppose you’ve come to inquire about weapons for the coming war.”
“Simply how long it might take for them to be ready. I don’t expect you’ve had cause for maintaining any stockpile,” the scout answered.
Arviss shook his head. “We do have old weapons lying around of course, but they’re not gonna do you any good. I singed my beard in the heat those giants brought to the battle. You will need something more than catapults and magic swords to defeat them. We have to be able to put out their fire without getting so close that ya’ might be burned.”
“You have such a weapon?” Bockwimen asked hopefully.
“No,” Answered Arviss abruptly. “Why would we need such a weapon before now?”
“But you can create one, can’t you?” the scout asked.
“Meh, there’s a chance we might can conjure up somethin’,” Arviss said dryly. “I can’t say how enthused my brothers and kin might be ‘bout firin’ up the kiln and all. As much as you know I like war’s ability to generate a profit, we’ve all become rather accustomed to this whole manner of peace.” Pausing for another drink and then wiping his face with the back of his sleeve, he added, “They’ll be upset, of course, when they see the injuries my brother’s take home w’ ‘em. When they hear the story, though, how it was that dammed Hantu Air queen that caused the whole mess, they’re likely to be more interesting in going after her than messin’ w’ the troubled ones.”
“But you can’t think that the troubled ones would attack once and then leave us alone do you?” Bockwimen challenged. “All our communities are at risk and we must be able to protect them.”
Arviss was not moved. “Try to look at this from the perspective of those who ‘aven’t had the protection of the home tree their entire lives. We’ve had a lot thrown at us. First, the humans are gettin’ all aggressive an’ it turns out they know ‘bout us. Then we’re told that the shifting poles are changing the magnetic fields and our magic may not work. That was enough right there to overwhelm the most of us. But then, the water queen betrays us all, assassinates the leader of the troubled ones, an’ there ya’ go, we’re at war on so many differen’ fronts we don’ know which direction to shoot first. An’ then ya’ come to me, of course, lookin’ for weapons that can fight off vengeance at the same time. Can ya’ see how my kin might be a li’l reluctant to get involved? We’ve fought wars against other magicians an’ we won. We’ve fought wars against humans and’ that was more of a draw. Now, you’re takin’ on both at the same time an’ I’m not sure any of us are quite ready for that.”
The dwarf took a deep breath. He could see the desperation and fear in Bockwimen’s eyes. The dwarves had been loyal to Apa’ii for too many seasons to back out of the challenge now. “Tell ya’ what I’ll do. I’ll talk to my kin ‘bout weapons to use against the troubled ones and the Hantu Air. We know magic an’ how to fend it off better than anyone. Fighting humans, though, you’re gonna have to find someone else. We jus’ don’ have it in us to do everythin’. I won’t put my brothers and my kin under that kind of strain. We’re not the only weapon makers in the realm, ya’ know.”
Bockwimen leaned forward and spoke softly. “Are you suggesting I go to the elves?”
Arviss sat back, his eyes wide as though he were facing some great horror. “Good Barthardy, no!” he exclaimed, pounding a fist on the table. “Ya’ cannot trust elven magic in the hands of anyone but elves. Freyr’s li’l trick with the arrows wouldn’a worked even w’ out the queen’s curse on ‘em. Ya’ jus’ don’ go ‘round givin’ elven weapons to random souls. Unpredictable things happen when ya’ do that. No, I think there are others whose magic is a wee bit more stable. Maybe talk to ol’ Aapo, the alux, if you can find him. He and Ohdow neither one like bein’ seen all that much but they carry powerful magic that might be useful against the humans. An’ if ya’ need to build stuff, no one better than Ali’i an’ his clan. Easy enough to find. Jus’ wave around a banana. He’ll come runnin’. An’ if ya’ get desperate, there’s always Leanan an’ her kin.”
“Hasn’t she been banned from contact with humans?” Bockwimen asked.
“Aye,” Arviss said with a smile. “An’ for good enough reason, too, that’s why she an’ her clan make for a good backup plan. They’ll have humans doing themselves in before ya’ know it.”
Bockwimen drummed his fingers on the wood table as he considered his options. “Do you suppose they could pull back just a bit, distract humans without driving them to a fateful death?”
Arviss shrugged his broad shoulders. “I dunno. Their charms don’ affect magic folk. An’ they haven’t been allowed in the human world in so long it could well be that their wiles are not as effective as they use ta’ be. The question ya’ gotta ask yourself is are ya’ desperate enough to find out?”
Light inside the pub visibly dimmed as dark skies announced the arrival of Queen Belinda. As smaller souls rushed to the windows to catch a glimpse of the air queen. Arviss leaned across the table and softly said, “Don’ discount what the sylphids bring to a fight, either. Belinda is heir to the power of Zeus. When it comes to fighting the water magicians, she’s a powerful ally and is going to bring some weapons to the table that we’ve never seen. The only real question here is whether Queen Apa’ii is gonna do somethin’ this time or if she’s sittin’ on her hands again?”
Bockwimen shook his head. “I don’t know. She was crying most the night, more than I’ve ever seen her grieve before. Other times, she wants to talk through her pain. This time she sent everyone away. I hardly know what to expect from her. Apa’ii has always risen above her emotion. This may be the one time she’s not able to do so.”
“Might be a blessin’,” Arvis said as he finished off his grog. “Mix her sense of strategy with a little anger and this who war might be over before any new weapons are needed. We all need a little righteous motivation from time to time. Queen Apa’ii is one soul I trust to turn her anger and pain into somethin’ powerful.”
Bockwimen nodded and stood. “I should go. Please carry a message back to your clan. Any way they can help is appreciated.”
“Aye, that,” Arviss said. “I’ll let ‘em know ya’ asked for them specific like. They’ll like that.”
Hard rain was falling as Bockwimen stepped outside the pub. He looked toward the home tree and noticed it was glowing orange. Apa’ii was agitated. It was going to be a long day.
Brad Lofton was scrolling through a social media feed on his cell phone with his right hand while absent-mindedly spilling coffee from a green ceramic USGS mug onto his white shirt with his left hand when Nadia Rabentix walked over and gave him a blank stare that made the 46-year-old feel uncomfortable no matter what he was doing. “What’s up?” he asked, hoping he sounded sufficiently casual. Nadia was a brilliant scientist who also happened to be extremely attractive, the latter having led her to file multiple sexual harassment complaints with HR, causing many in the office to avoid interacting with her at all. Brad was micro-examining every interaction he had with her.
“NOAHH just called. They’re wanting to know if we recorded any seismic activity in Northeast Pennsylvania over the past 24 hours,” she said flatly.
“I assume you looked,” Brad said as he realized the mess he’d made of his shirt.
“Yes, obviously,” Nadia said, perturbed that she didn’t seem to have Brad’s full attention. “Nothing is showing on any of our monitors.”
Brad sat down his coffee mug on the closest desk and looked around desperately for something to blot the stain on his shirt. “Okay, that’s not surprising. You’ve called them back?”
Carol Waters, whose desk was hosting Brad’s coffee cup, handed him a stack of fast food napkins she kept in a drawer for random emergencies.
Nadia waited a moment, giving Brad time to vainly attempt to scrub the stain. When it seemed apparent that his actions were not producing the desired result, she said, “Brad, they’re saying a new igneous formation, what they’re calling a mountain, appeared overnight. Our instruments show no plate movement of any kind, we’ve got no public report of any kind, and there are none of the other natural phenomena that should occur with such a disruption, but I’ve looked at the satellite imagery from this morning’s pass and there’s definitely something there.”
Brad stopped wiping and said, “Then we need eyes. Grab a team and go take a look.”
“Excuse me?” Nadia replied, caught off guard by Brad’s seemingly dismissive instruction.
Brad tossed the napkin into Carol’s waste can before explaining. “You’ve been wanting to do more fieldwork, right? And this could be one of the most important events of our lifetime. There’s a reason satellite shows a change our instruments didn’t pick up. The weather in that region has been stormy the past few days so I expect it to be some combination of the storms causing deforestation and probably taking our equipment offline or something to that effect. But if that’s not the case, this could be something for the history books. You’re the best geologist in the division. Put together your dream team and see if you can be out there by tomorrow morning. I’ll sign off on any equipment you want to take.”
Nadia smiled at the assignment. Brad reached to pick up his coffee mug and bumped his elbow on the corner of Carol’s cubicle, sloshing coffee onto his khaki pants and her desk. She reached for more napkins as Brad grumbled, “I might as well go back home.”
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We don’t have to do this now,” Belinda said as she watched Apa’ii pacing back and forth across the floor of the throne room. “I’m sure we can wait until after the pyre memorial. No one expects you to have an immediate response.”
“That’s exactly why we need one,” Apa’ii answered, her tone serious as a deep orange aura glowed from her countenance. “We have to get out in front of this now before it overwhelms us. The dangers are too many and the number of souls at risk too real. I’ve already sent Bomenak to retrieve those settled in the high desert and I’m concerned that I only sent the young elf with him. I should have given him a battalion of magicians.”
“Dasheng Sen has gone quiet,” Belinda said. “I don’t understand why she would want to start such a conflict now, at a time where her own magic is less powerful than it was. Why start a war that she doesn’t have the strength to fight?”
“Why start a war at all?” Apa’ii answered back. “How are any of us supposed to respond to the humans if we cannot trust each other? The only reasonable way to deal with them is in concert. We need the power of the waters. She has a much at stake as either of us. Her actions have no logic to them at all.”
“Especially when she was such an active participant in our plan to address the human problem,” Belinda added. “I’m not sure any of it is salvageable without her being involved. Her betrayal puts us more on the defensive than is going to make anyone comfortable. Few of our souls are going to agree to any aggressive activity against humans if they’re having to watch their backs for attacks from the troubled ones or the Hantu Air,” Apa’ii mused. “We have spent many seasons teaching our souls how to resolve our differences through dialog and peaceful compromise. Where there have always been those like Bogmenak and Gui that disagree with those concepts, those precepts have prevented us from having any significant conflicts for some 5,000 seasons. The number of souls we have with any practical knowledge on war are all older, too old to be taking to any kind of battlefield. Many of our younger souls don’t know the defensive spells to keep themselves safe from the kinds of attacks the troubled ones bring. Fewer have any knowledge of attack or offensive spells and how to use them effectively. I fear we could lose many souls from the misapplication of our magic. And that’s assuming our magic works at all.”
Belinda rolled clouds around her as thunder shook the home tree. Neither queen was sure what to do and both were feeling pressure from their subjects to do something to avenge the deaths caused by the troubled ones. The anxiety and frustration caused by the lack of choices left them both feeling angry.
Apa’ii suddenly twirled around and faced the jeweled door. Her countenance turned blood red and she brought it low so that none outside the room would know the concern she was feeling. “We have an unexpected guest wandering the community,” she said quietly. “One that shouldn’t be here.”
Belinda’s clouds darkened even more and outside the tree, the clouds were so heavy as to nearly blot out all light from the sun. Sylphids who had come with their queen took this as a sign of danger and went on guard, ready for trouble. Nawa’ Diyo, understandably anxious from the attack, left their mourning lights, and rushed to places of safety, casting protection spells around them as they went.
“He has broken the conditions of his exile,” Belinda said softly.
“Or someone decided to set him free,” Apa’ii countered.
“Or the magic holding him in exile simply stopped working,” a deep voice growled behind them.
The queens turned, immediately tossing up defensive shields around them. There, smack center in the throne room stood Ulaf, the Elbenkönig, dressed in flowing black robes surrounded by a putrid black smoke that smelled of burning sulfur. He was tall and gaunt, handsome despite his severe age. His blonde-silver hair flowed behind him almost to the floor. His beard fell to his knees. From the dark hollows on his face, his eyes glowed red. For one to be inescapably suave, the Elbenkönig leader was a frightful sight.
“Imagine me walking along the edge of that pitifully little realm you gave us and discovering that the delightful little shield that kept us hidden from the world, preventing us from doing our will and keeping the humans in check, was, poof, suddenly gone,” Ulaf said, gesturing dramatically with his hands.
“I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought perhaps one of you were playing some kind of trick on us,” he continued. “I tossed a few pebbles across the boundary to make sure, and then a few boulders, and, okay, I may have caused an avalanche on one of those mountains with all the snow on them. But once I was sure that our prison had been lifted, that our exile was no more, I hurried here as quickly as I could, dear Apa’ii, knowing you would be oh so glad to see me!”
Ulaf laughed at himself then looked up. “I certainly didn’t expect to run unto you, Belinda. Since when have you and your Sylphids started hanging around the earth-bound? That seems so very unlike you. Oh, you’ll want to know that the valkyries wasted no time returning home. I dare say they’re probably very unhappy with the state of the skies and the lack of honorable war. How you both have managed to make such a mess of things in a mere, what has it been, 2800 or so seasons? My, time does fly when one is in exile.”
Apa’ii pulled herself up to her full height, flashing white-hot light that pulsed through the home tree. “We will find a new place for you and your demon-kind,” she warned. “We will not have you running loose, wreaking havoc and endangering our existence. I know a mountain range far in the East that is well suited for you and your allies.” She drew back her hand, ready to cast Ulaf, the valkyries, and all the exiled souls back into prison.
Ulaf held up his hands in defense and shouted, “Hold on there, dear queen. Before you go slinging your magic around, perhaps you might consider the possibility that you need us, that you need me to help you with this mess that you’ve gotten yourself into. I know how Dashen Sen betrayed you. The new has spread all over the magic realms. The waters of the far East are already boiling with activity and the mer have begun to rise from the depths. Great trouble is coming and the only way to combat trouble is with trouble and no one knows trouble better than the Elbenkönig, am I not right?
“Oh, and how are your troubled ones? I hear they’re a tad bit upset after their leader was so brutally assassinated. We both know they don’t care who did the assassination, they will come for every magician they can find and they will smash all our cores into dust. Do you think the two of you can take on both the troubled ones and the entire realm of Hantu Air by yourselves? I am the only one who can help you defeat Dasheng Sen. You need a certain kind of magic, that beautifully dark brand of elven magic, that only we possess. We would both do so much better as allies rather than enemies, don’t you think?”
“We will not be persuaded to return to the ways of the past!” Apa’ii roared. “There is no longer any room here for your deceit and trickery. We cannot allow you and the Elbenkönig and the valkyries to run your murderous rampage over the realm of the humans. Things have changed. Humans have changed. They are a threat to our existence, the existence of everything on this sacred ground. They no longer hold the honor of the ancient kings. They don’t even care about the destruction of their own lives, much less ours. They will not fear your tactics as they did before. They have a magic of their own now and if you make yourself and your kind known to them, especially in any way that appears threatening, they will hunt you down and disassemble each one of you so that they might mix your magic with their magic to dominate the planet and bring an end to everything that is not human. Too much has changed, Ulaf. You are better off, safer, to remain hidden in exile.”
Ulaf smiled and took a cautious step forward. “But, your majesty, do you not think that we, too have changed over the many seasons? We have gone this entire time without the taste of blood in our mouths and I dare say we would find it offensive now, as you do. We can fit within the culture and environment of the current time, I promise you.
“Let me make a proposition, if I may. The Nawa’ Diyo has never been all that aggressive. Even in days of old, you have urged restraint, have you not? Yes, you protected them and us, during the great wars, but you never did go for the ultimate kill. You don’t have it in you. That’s why you put us in exile rather than incinerate our cores as some suggested.” He threw a side glance up at Belinda who rumbled strongly in return.
“So, why not let us be your army? I pledge to you, my queen, we would do only your biding, but we would do it with greater efficiency, and more frugality, than your little-winged subjects. You need souls that can put fear where there needs to be fear and action where there needs to be action. Give us your charge, my queen, and this war shall be yours.”
Apa’ii looked at Belinda, who nodded her consent. Neither of them was foolish enough to trust Ulaf without strict boundaries. The bloodings legacy of the Elbenkönig and the valkyries were well known and their renewed presence after so many seasons in exile would be a matter of concern for all the Nawa’ Diyo. Still, there was no denying that, if controlled, they would make a powerful army at a time when every available resource was needed.
“We need time to consider your offer,” Apa’ii said, maintaining the strength of her voice. “You will all return to exile while we complete our mourning and prepare a strategy that represents our best interest. I give you my world and my oath. Go peacefully now and we will give you a reasonable hearing within five sunsets. Choose your words and your actions well. We must be certain that you are loyal to all Nawa’Diyo, that you will respect our laws, and that you will do no harm to the magic souls of land and air.”
Ulaf nodded and bowed in consent. Apa’ii quickly performed the complex spell that would keep all the Elbenkönig and valkyries in a new mountain exile until they were called upon. The valkyries were especially unhappy with Ulaf’s arrangement as they were curious as to the ways of modern humans but agreed to abide by whatever plan the queens established.
When the throne room was again clear, Belinda turned to apa’ii and asked, “DO you dare to dance with the devil that caused our realms so much pain?” Dare we trust that their blood lust has been abated?”
“Do you trust your own souls?” Apa’ii asked in return. “There are many among us who once fed off the blood and bones of humans. They have evolved and adapted for their own safety. We exiled the Elbenkönig many seasons ago and have left them there to their own devices, to either survive without human flesh or to not and die. Obviously, they did not die.”
“But is that enough reason to trust them?” Have they ever had it in them to be loyal to anyone other than themselves?” Belinda asked. “I don’t trust Ulaf and I certainly don’t trust the valkyries. I’m sure they will have figured out that Odin is dead and Vallhalla is no more. They will want answers from the humans. Never have I known them to be creatures of mercy. If we allow them freedom I cannot expect them to be kind or cooperative.”
“Perhaps kind and cooperative is no longer the qualities we need,” Apa’ii said as she took a seat on her throne and spread her robes around her. “Sit here with me and together let us take counsel on the matter. We should not rely only on what we can see. We will mourn and we will then plan. Our problems continue to grow and we cannot dare to wait long before taking an action that changes the balance between humans and magicians. We have a sacred responsibility to save this earth at any cost. We cannot afford to not consider all the options, even those that may seem to defy our purpose.”
Outside, the home tree once again sparkled with the soft yellow glow of Apa’ii sitting on her throne. The Nawa’ Diyo resumed their activities confident in their queens’ power to protect them and blissfully unaware of the dangers they would soon encounter.