The Thinning Veil, Part Nineteen

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Chapter 54 | Chapter 55| Chapter 56

Chapter 54

Chapter 54

There was no sure way to confirm whether all of Freyr’s magic arrows had been gathered. Dormant magic is not recognized when embodied in an artifact. Spells can linger unused and unbothered for ages, surprising those who never knew that the relic handed down through family for generations was blessed or cursed or protected in any way.

Freyer was unsure how many arrows he made nor the quantities he had distributed. Making arrows came easily enough and adding the forbidden magic hadn’t been any more difficult than any other spell one might put on such a weapon. Neither was there any way to account for how many arrows had been used in battle. No one who had the elven arrows in their quiver had held back as they fought the troubled ones. Arrows of many kinds had flown heavily and achieved their goal with an accuracy only found in magical weapons. Still, others had broken shafts and other construction issues that cause them to be tossed to the side.

The pile of unused arrows that were turned in was large enough that moving them all safely to the Aesir fire presented some logistical challenges. Bundled and stacked neatly, the arrows stood several meters high and almost as many deep. Both Fleau and Lania were significantly small in comparison to the size of the stack. 

Complicating the task further was the fear that shrinking the arrows to a manageable size, which seemed the sensible thing to do, might activate the forbidden magic in unexpected ways. Not having any knowledge of how volatile the magic might be when influenced by other magic made it dangerous to transport by any method. There could be no quick reassignment of matter from one point to another. Getting the arrows and the sword to the Aesir fire would be a cautious journey of days rather than minutes.

While the Aesir had relocated their villages to the northern lake region of North America, their magical fire of creation was still across the ocean in a remote area that humans know as part of Norway, high in the Lyngen Alps where the persistent snow and constant threat of avalanche protected the flame from discovery by over-enthusiastic skiers. The flame was guarded by a small group of older Aesir who understood its magic and continued to maintain the intense heat of the fire despite their having been no need for it across thousands of seasons. The Aesir had known there would eventually be moments where the fire would be needed either for creation or destruction. They did not mind waiting as the solitude allowed them to live peaceful and pleasurable lives without interference from any outside influence.

Lezard typically visited the flame annually during the Saturnalia feasts, bring gifts to the keepers and making sure any new threats to their privacy were eliminated. When he arrived again so early in the spring, the attendants knew that the time had come for their fire to be put to use. The only question was to what purpose.

“We must bring the fire to its hottest temperature,” Lezard told them. “Queen Apa’ii of the Nawa’ Diyo is sending weapons of forbidden magic that must be thoroughly destroyed and released into the universe. She sends with the weapons those with knowledge of the ancient rites. We must provide suitable shelter for them while they are our guests. The task they undertake is of great importance to us all.”

There was no argument or even a question among the keepers of the flame. Time had bestowed upon them an understanding of words and their intent, making additional conversation meaningless. Quietly, they went about the task of increasing the temperature of the fire and constructing shelter for their guests. When Fleau and Lania arrived with the weapons, the fire would be ready for the sacred rituals.

Fleau and Lania considered the size of the piles of arrows, surprised that despite the ferocity of the battle with the troubled ones, there remained so many still carrying the forbidden magic.

“Freyr was certainly generous with his dangerous gift,” Fleau said as she stood looking upward at the stacks. “No wonder he had no account for how many there might be.”

“He used a rapid replication spell, I dare say,” Lania commented. “Many of these arrows are identical. Likely, he carried only one bundle to each clan and expanded it to meet their desire.”

“And everyone desired enough to take on the troubled ones themselves,” Fleau said. “Nawa’ Diyo always consider themselves more fierce than is necessary for a situation.”

“Having not had any reason for war in so many seasons has created an eagerness among formerly violent clans that have missed the glory of battle,” Lania said. “They have forgotten that with great victory comes great sacrifice. The memorial pyres burn bright across the realm. In our many seasons of comfort, we have lost the perspective that comes with being at war. We have been casual and careless in how magic is used. We have not been careful to sharpen our aim or keep our magic pure. I am mildly surprised that Queen Apa’ii has not set tighter restrictions on the use and development of weapons.”

“Queen Apa’ii prefers to govern lightly,” Fleau responded. “The confederation of magical clans is so diverse that often what might be an appropriate oversight for some would be restrictive for others. Apa’ii believes and trusts in souls’ greater sense of responsibility to their community to keep everyone at peace, and for the most part, that concept has served us well. Each clan is free to observe tradition or cancel it as they see fit. Yes, some areas could do with greater oversight, but in the absence of war, they were hardly noticeable. Only now, as battles and deaths become real, do we see the inefficiencies of being too free.”

“Our evolution has made us less aggressive, which is a wonderful thing,” Lania said. “I am much happier when we spend our time dancing, singing, and casting color around the earth for no reason. We get tired of all the blue on this planet. Our clans are happier and more productive than they’ve ever been. We are no longer the spirits that roam through the night seeking to cleave those who have become lost or forlorn. Yet, all this comfort leaves us ill-prepared for moments like these when we need the skill and perceptions of seasons past. We have forgotten that peace always has enemies that lurk in the shadows. We have forgotten to be vigilant.”

“And the result is a stack of arrows more dangerous than all the bombs in human arsenals,” Fleau said. “How do we move such a stockpile safely?”

“Perhaps I can help,” came a deep voice that neither of the clan leaders had noticed. Tonukasi was shorter than either of them, his core dark and covered with coarse hair. He wore a bright orange tunic tied with a green belt, a lit pipe constantly at his mouth, a wreath of hashish smoke circling his head. “There are ways we can increase the vibration of the bulk rather than individual arrows. Levitate the mass and they move easily.”

Fleau and Lania looked first at each other, then at Tonukasi, then back at each other. “Look at us being so wrapped up in the philosophical idea that we completely missed the obvious solution,” Lania said.

“What is obvious depends on the number of obstructions to one’s vision,” Tonukasi said. “You are both leaders of great clans. There is much on your mind and what might be obvious from one perspective is easily hidden by other matters that cause one worry. I can levitate the mass if one of you can make it invisible and, perhaps, the other can provide a wind or other means of sending it moving. A good push and we should have it to the Aesir fire in a couple of days.”

“We?” questioned Fleau. “You are implying that you would come with us?”

Tonukasi took a long draw from his pipe and exhaled slowly. “I am small and the range of my magic is limited,” he said. “The only way to maintain the levitation is if I follow along.”

“But your clan does not fly,” Fleau said.

“No, but I can ride quite comfortably,” Tonukasi said. “Let me sit atop the stack and we can make the trip quickly and with less danger.”

Fleau looked back at Lania and asked, “Are you okay with this solution? Faster travel time does reduce the risk.”

“I can handle the invisibility,” Lania said. “Can you provide the motion?”

“I’m not as good at it as Meliea or one of the sylphids, but I can provide motion without wind, which might be safer. The less attention we draw, the better. There’s no need to advertise what we’re doing or where we are.”

“Then it is settled,” Tonukasi said. “If you will give me but a moment, I will prepare for our journey.” The small Aziza hurried off and disappeared at the base of a nearby oak tree.

Fleau watched Tonukasi leave then turned back to Lania. “I’ve never worked with the Aziza. Have you?”

“No, they are not well represented in this part of the country. I’ve met their leader, Ochuko, at council meetings, of course, but I’ve never partnered with one. Seems they mostly prefer the warmer climates to our South.”

“And dense urban areas of human cities,” Fleau added. “They are industrious and wise but they have their own spells and do magic a little differently than the Vila.”

“What do you mean?” Lania asked.

“Watch, when he returns he’ll be carrying food with him, mostly fruit, perhaps a few vegetables,” Fleau said. “I don’t know what the connection is, exactly, but they either can’t or won’t do magic without eating first.”

Lania looked back at the stack of arrows and said, “He’s going to need more than a couple of apples to get all that off the ground.”

“If he likes apples at all,” Fleau said. “They all tend to have individual preferences in that regard. He’ll also keep his pipe lit the entire trip. It helps him to focus his magic.”

“He’s so very different than the Xanas, or other souls our size,” Lania said. “It will be interesting to travel with him.” She paused before adding, “Should we tell the queen?”

“She knows,” Fleau said. “She’s been keeping a very close watch on matters since the Deavas arrived.”

Lania shuddered. “There’s a group I don’t care to associate with. I’m still surprised Apa’ii released them from exile. They have never been anything short of trouble and I”m not comfortable having them around.”

“All the more reason to get these arrows and the sword out of here as quickly as possible,” Fleau said. “I can’t imagine what they might do if they got their hands on the forbidden magic.”

“How are we carrying the sword?” Lania asked. “Every malevolent soul in the northern hemisphere is going to want to get their hands on that thing.”

“We’re carrying it in a box that Alviss made of carefully smithed silver. The box is sealed with seven seals placed by Queen Apa’ii, Queen Belinda, Eir, Ulaf, Lezard, Pockwatch, and myself. All seven of us would have to be present to unseal the box. Only when placed in the ancient fire of the Aesir will the box melt away and the sword will be consumed.”

“Assuming we perform the ritual correctly,” Lania said. “Millions of seasons have passed since there has been any need for this ritual and it’s not one that comes without risks. Magic of the gods is not only powerful but full of traps to guard against its misuse. Should there be anything out of place, any piece done wrong, the fire will rise and consume us, not the sword.”

“And you have all that we need?” Fleau asked.

“Yes, tucked securely away,” Lania said, patting a pouch tied to her waist. “Everything specifically required by the Carpathian ritual. I’ve copied the roles for you and Lezard. No one else can be present. Any murmurs, any other voices would result in tragedy.”

“So, what do we do with Tonukasi when we get there?” Fleau asked. “We can’t risk anything going wrong.”

”We can send him back home before we start,” Lania said. “He is small. The magic is simple. That’s assuming he can’t transport himself.”

Fleau shook her head. “Aziza are native tree-dwellers. They can jump fantastic distances between trees, but they do not fly, nor can they transmute to any form of winged creature. He will need our help.”

“Help with what?” Tonukasi asked as he returned. He was carrying two large bundles of fruit, mostly mangoes, and pineapple with extra bundles of figs, dates, and nuts. Noticing that his soon-to-be companions were staring at the food, he said, “I brought enough to share, I think. The trip is a couple of days and my magic fails if I don’t keep up my energy.”

Fleau nodded. “We were discussing how to get you back here safely.”

The smaller magician set his bundles on the ground and looked thoughtful. “I suppose I could levitate myself and hope for a favorable wind, or maybe catch a ride with a falcon or eagle.”

“I should be able to transport you back magically,” Lania said. “It’s safer than leaving you to the whims of nature. You’re small enough that some animals might look at you as dinner.”

Tonukasi laughed. “That would require quite a bit of cunning and at the first taste, they would likely spit me back out. Aziza are rather spicy to the normal palette, or at least, that’s what I’m told. I’ve never tested that particular statement.”

“There’s no point in testing it now,” Lania said. “Getting you back safely is not difficult. I can whisk you back here in a moment. It’s only the bulk of the arrows that is slowing down our journey.”

Tonukasi picked up his bundles and smiled. “Let’s get started then! I have plenty of stories that I’m sure will keep you entertained. Everyone likes my stories. Aziza were some of the first magicians in the forest, you know. We have some incredible legends and I’m quite frankly surprised that they’re not more well known among the magic community. But then, there are so many different souls now I guess it can be difficult to keep up with everyone.”

Lania and Fleau looked at each other with worrisome expressions. This trip was going to feel like an eternity.

Chapter 55

Chapter 55

Deep in a hollow of the home tree, well away from normal traffic to and from the throne room and other official business of the realm, Freyr was being held in a narrow cell roughly carved out of the base of the tree where the queen’s magic was the strongest. The elf had no knowledge of the twenty different spells holding him there. He had already decided that he would have to use special elven magic to escape at whatever point Ulaf arrived to administer his punishment. Until then, his only choice was to sit still and pretend to be contrite. Any move he made toward the door, or even to lean on the walls, resulted in splinters of wood reaching out and poking him back to the center of the room. 

Freyr didn’t mind all that much. They were giving him plenty of time to sit and think of the precise order of spells he would need to overpower the Erlkönig. Additional spells were needed to hide from the rest of the clan. Disabling Ulaf in any way, whether temporary or worse, would alert all the others. They would have vengeance on their minds if they ever found him. He would have to act quickly to leave the area around the home tree and retrieve the sword before it was destroyed.

The elf knew that the sword would be surrounded by magic in an effort to keep it safe from those wanting to misuse its powers. He created the weapon knowing that it would be especially dangerous if it fell into the possession of anyone other than Pausnuk. The magic was metered to match Pausnuk’s temperament and sense of fairness and justice. That such a tremendous blast had come from the sword had only been possible because of the desperation the counselor felt at the moment it was removed from its sheath. Anyone else picking up the sword expecting similar results would find the weapon of little use no matter what good they might intend.

One soul attempting to use the sword for selfish or evil purposes would experience the pain of having the magic directed back toward them. Only one other soul could safely wield the sword and he knew that destroying it required a level of skill and precision he hadn’t seen among the Zanas or the Vila. Lania’s access to the rituals did not mean she knew how to administer them correctly. No one had dared use the forbidden magic so there had been no reason for anyone to practice the ancient rite necessary to destroy it.

Queen Apa’ii had not wanted to hear Freyr’s explanation for why he had created the sword or why he chose to use the forbidden magic. He knew that the soulless troubled ones would not be easily defeated with traditional magic. The troubled ones were not made the same as other magical creatures. They were born with hate for all things good, all things orderly, and all things human. He had noticed during the battle at the home tree how many magicians it took to dismantle a troubled one and cringed at the number of souls slaughtered before Apa’ii defeated them. 

Freyr was convinced that the queen could have stopped the carnage sooner. Sending Pausnuk off to battle, sending legions of souls to the lakes region, were both irresponsible without Apa’ii giving them sufficient magic to defeat the troubled ones or Dasheng Sen. Using the forbidden magic helped even the score and gave the Nawa’ Diyo a fighting chance. He had been unaware that the great power would disrupt the entire universe. That side effect was unexpected. Still, Freyr was convinced he had done what was best.

The solitude of his cell was the perfect place to think. There were no distractions. Food appeared at regular intervals without any interactions. He could not hear all the clamoring outside of those who felt his sentence was too lenient. He was unaware that Bogmenak and others who had received the tainted arrows were planning to attack Ulaf with the intention of killing the elf.

Queen Apa’ii knew, though, and was also well aware of Freyr’s plans. She passed the information along to Ulaf with a warning: “Do not let any kind of battle break out around the home tree communities. Use whatever deception you must. Employ what allies are necessary. Do not let this invoke any more violence.”

Ulaf embraced the challenge with more excitement than Apa’ii expected. He waw this as a chance to remind the magic realm how dominant the Erlkönig were, and how much more powerful they would become. When he arrived at the home tree, it was with a carefully calculated plan that anticipated both Freyr’s attempt to escape and Bogmenak’s hope to kill the elf outright.

Bogmenak could not see the ring of Erlkönig circling above the home tree. He did know, though, that his window of opportunity to snatch Freyr away from Ulaf would be narrow. Invisibility would not be possible for the prisoner until they were outside the home tree. In that brief moment where Ulaf would need to exchange the entrapment spells used to confine the prisoner for traveling spells to keep Freyr from escaping, they would have to attack, overpower the Erlkönig, and cleave Freyer’s core in half before anyone else had a chance to respond.

Bogmenak had assembled a rough group of disgruntled miscreants, barely fifty in number, but all strong magicians whose powers remained largely intact despite the magnetic shift. They were divided into four groups. One would create a distraction—nothing too dangerous, just enough to attract Ulaf’s gaze for a second, diminishing his hold over Freyr. A second group would then bind the Erlkönig while a third attacked and killed Freyr. The fourth group would provide them cover while they all fled back to Hayehse where they would hide deep within the protection of the mountain. Timing and coordination were critical to their success and having practiced the maneuver twice, hiding inside Hayehse, Bogmenak was sure they would succeed.

Of course, success meant consequences. Administering what Bogmenak saw as justice put him in violation of the Queen’s authority. He knew that Ulaf would be offended as well and would likely see retribution. Bogmenak feared neither, though. He had disobeyed the queen’s orders before and mistakenly assumed that the Erlkönig’s time in exile had slowed his reflexes and weakened his magic. He could take shelter inside the mountain for as many seasons as he needed, protected by the magic of his clan. The magician was confident of his inevitable success.

For Bogmenak and many like him, Freyr’s actions had put them in danger. Forbidden magic was volatile and was known to produce unexpected results even when wielded by the primordial gods. That none of Freyr’s arrows had exploded or sheared off into an unknown spell was a fortunate exception. Not informing the clans of the forbidden danger could have killed them all. Bogmenak considered this a betrayal. Freyr could not be allowed to live with or without magic. The elf could not be trusted.

None of this was a surprise to Apa’ii. She had expected some to disagree with the prescribed punishment and Bogmenak’s decision to take matters into his own hands was a typical response for him. She considered, briefly, that she might stop the small group of vigilantes before they had a chance to enact their plan. She was also aware that, were they to somehow be successful, it could set off a wave of similar actions that would disrupt the realm. Having magicians running around acting as their own judges and executioners was a danger that she could not allow to proliferate. Apa’ii was putting her faith in the ability of the Erlkönig to not only thwart the attack but to do so in a way that would discourage others from challenging her decisions in the future.

Everyone had a plan. Each was confident that their plan would produce desired results. No one bothered to factor in the chances that other souls might innocently interfere, or that the powers of the universe might not work in their favor. As often happens, the desire to succeed blinds one from considering the possibilities that their actions are not the ones best suited for the situation. Interference or defeat are not sufficiently considered. If they had been, each would have taken different actions.

Ulaf appeared at the opening to Freyr’s cell with a magic tablet in his hands. Smiling in the knowing way that all Erlkönig had when about to devour a soul, he said, “Stand, you ridiculous degenerate. I have something to read before I escort you to your point of banishment.”

Freyr stood with his head bowed, knowing better than to give the Erlkönig power by looking him in the eyes. In his mind, he walked through the set of spells he would soon need.

Ulaf held up the tablet and said, “In accordance with the laws and wishes of the Nawa’ Diyo, the council of elders, clan leaders, and the assigned will of their souls, you, Freyr of the Iowerth clan are hereby sentenced to eternal exile without hope of return, stripped of all magical powers and knowledge, and your physical appearance modified to appear human in every way. You are hereby banished to the great mountains of ancient homelands where you will wander without magical aid or assistance until such time as the universe sees fit to end your days. By the hand and authority of Queen Apa’ii, may it be done.”

Looking up from the tablet, Ulaf said, “Let me add, on behalf of all elven clans scattered across the planet and the stars, we find your use of forbidden magic wholly irresponsible, rife with danger and selfishness that has put every elf on every planet in grave danger. Already, our distant fellows among the stars tell of homes that are now wholly uninhabitable thanks to your mindless actions. No matter what your intentions might have been, the fact is that you stole the book of ancients from the Iowerth vault, you deceived the librarians with deceitful spells, and you have forever maligned the name and reputation of the Iowerth clan. You do not deserve to be called an elf.”

Ulaf hit Freyer with a blast of magic knocking him to the floor. Pain surged through his core and he struggled to find his breath. The sides of his head burned as his ears were rounded and his advanced hearing was lost. His lean limbs were replaced with the thick, flabby flesh of humans. His long fingers became short stubs, his stomach grew fat and bulbous, his nose red-veined and full of snot. Across his forehead, there was a line that to humans might appear as nothing more than a wrinkle, but to any magical soul, it was a mark of disgrace.

“You have been forever marked, Freyr,” Ulaf said. “Any magical soul you may encounter, whether by chance or purpose, will see that mark and know of your crimes. Among humans, you appear old and drunken so they will despise you as well. No one will welcome you into their house. No one will show mercy. You shall be reviled and scorned for as long as the universe sees fit to let you live.”

The Erlkönig grinned again before adding, “And don’t think once about ending your own life. No matter what you might try, only the universe can release you from your misery. You are wretched and cursed, subject to all the maladies and diseases common to humans but immune to their medicines. For the rest of your life, you will suffer.”

Freyr stood and brushed off the pale shirt and khaki pants that replaced his tunic. The hard brown shoes on his feet felt like lead weights. Nothing about his new body felt comfortable.

“Finally, before we leave, it is the will of the elven clans that you be stripped of your elven name. Freyr of Iowerth is dead and his name shall never again be spoken,” Ulaf said. “From this point forward, you are known only as Frederick Brainerd Benedict, a name that will arise suspicion among humans the moment they encounter your treacherous soul. You shall retain no form or function that indicates you were ever an elf or any member of the Nawa’ Diyo.”

Freyr, hating the name Frederick, looked with disgust at the disheveled body he had been given. Being forced to live as a human was bad enough. To do so with such a slovenly appearance filled him with sickening repulsion. While he had always considered human bodies inferior, this one was by far the worst he had ever encountered. His hope lied with the magic still a part of him. Ulaf would not be able to strip him of his magic until they were outside the home tree. He was ready to enact his spells the instant they were free of the home tree’s restrictions.

Ulaf grabbed Frederick by the nape of the neck and shoved the prisoner out of the cell. They would leave through a passage at the rear of the tree that few souls knew. Apa’ii had insisted on this route so that Bogmenak’s assassination attempt would occur away from the crowds that inevitably gathered near the general admission area of the home tree. She had made sure no innocents were nearby when Ulaf opened the door and shoved Frederick out. 

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Chapter 56

Chapter 56

Time is often a critical matter in the magic realm. Many spells not only require a specific environment, but exact moments in the course of events and the level of emotion in those involved factor heavily into the success of a spell. Too early and the necessary elements may not be present. Too late, even by a second, and the target may be out of place, emotions can be too high, or elements spoil. That both the Erlkönig and Bgomenak’s militia were waiting for Ulaf and Frederick to emerge from the home tree was not surprising. Both knew they needed to act with precision if their plans were to succeed. 

Frederick, too, was waiting for the right moment when Ulaf would be distracted to launch his barrage of spells. He knew the sun would be bright on the backside of the home tree and that magic souls, like humans, needed a moment for their eyes to adjust to the brightness. The Erlkönig were not immune and Ulaf would have to blind before being able to see. A blink was the opportunity he needed.

Of course, Ulaf knew all these thanks to Apa’ii’s warning. Not only was he on guard against any last-second surprise, but he also took the added precaution of donning a magical helmet that would shade his eyes when walking into the sun. There would be no momentary blink and in the instant, Frederick attempted his spells they would be reflected back to him. An army of Erlkönig lingered invisibly in the sky as well, not only waiting for Bogmenak’s militia but as backup, in case Ulaf was somehow caught off guard. Any chance of Frederick escaping or being killed seemed slim.

Opening the door at the rear of the home tree, like everything else, required a secret spell that Apa’ii had told to Ulaf. The spell was short enough, requiring Ulaf to only think the incantation, Apeii Lanuam while moving his left hand to the right side as if turning a doorknob. 

The rear door wasn’t a guarded secret, merely seldom used. Most souls coming or going from the home tree wanted to be seen doing so. What was more surprising for the magic realm was that opening the door made noise. Most spells made no sound at all and outside those creating explosions of some kind, magic was largely a silent function. Unlike the front doors, however, which were ornate and smooth, the rear door was covered in tree bark, causing it to make grinding and crunching sounds as it moved to open. Since none of the souls present had used the rear door before, the sound caught everyone, including Frederick, by surprise.

That moment’s hesitation was enough to throw off everyone’s timing. As Frederick cast his spells, Ulaf took a step back, causing the spells to miss and hit the side of the tree rather than bouncing back at the elf as Ulaf had planned. Ulaf responded by grabbing Frederick by the back of the neck and slamming him to the ground.

Bogmenak’s militia, having been ordered to fire their arrows the moment the door opened, were too late to hit their target. The planned distraction fumbled into failure as the magic fell short. The hovering Erlkönig were least affected thanks to the slower speed of sound but were still late in turning back the arrows as had been the plan. Instead, their best option was to force the arrows into the ground where they could do no harm.

Mutual frustration drove everyone’s response. Ulaf was late in disabling Frederick’s magic, giving the elf enough time to cast a spell knocking Ulaf off his feet. Seeing their leader fall and not knowing whether he was harmed, the Erlkönig lept to his defense, making themselves visible and rushing the home tree. The militia had to reload their bows when the warriors suddenly appeared. While Bogmenak screamed for them to focus on Frederick, some panicked and aimed their arrows at the Erlkönig who responded with a lethal blast of magic. Half the militia fell dead, their cores shattered.

Ulaf recovered quickly enough to prevent the Erlkönig from initiating a more fierce attack, but in that brief moment, Frederick had gotten to his feet and vaulted to the front of the home tree, hoping to become lost in the crowd. A group of Erlkönig gave pursuit, their sudden presence alarming the innocent souls who had no knowledge of the goings-on involving the condemned elf. 

Panic quickly followed as many feared the Erlkönig were attacking them. Some attempted defensive spells while others chose to be invisible, causing many to run into each other and fall, their cores injured as others ran over them.

Bogmenak took what was left of his militia and charged around the opposite side of the tree hoping to cut off the fleeing elf and kill him before the Erlkönig could intervene. They were met by a rush of panicked souls fleeing the sight of the intimidating warriors, quickly separating them from Bogmenak. In the confusion, some fired their arrows at souls they momentarily thought might be Frederick.

The destruction of innocent souls enraged Apa’ii. With a blast of her magic, she cast a spell causing all motion to stop, frozen in both space and time. As she left the home tree, she tapped Ulaf so he could follow her. “I should have expected something like this would happen,” she said. “One never knows the cause but the universe delights in undoing well-intentioned plans. I do believe the cosmos has a fascination for drama that the rest of us fail to find entertaining.”

“My apologies, your majesty,” Ulaf said. “I have failed you.”

“You were caught by surprise,” the queen responded. “All the information in the world isn’t enough to guard against the errant follies of the universe. Our job now is to try and get everything back on track. First, we have to find our wayward elf.”

Apa’ii cast an ultraviolet light across the suspended crowd around the home tree. The magic light not only showed the presence of souls who were invisible but also the true form of those who disguised themselves. Ulaf was astonished by how many souls the light revealed over what he could see. He was also dismayed to discover that a group of half-elves had attempted to disguise themselves as Erlkönig. “Your light shows things I’m not sure I wanted to know,” Ulaf said. “I have always known that our enemies were many but I wasn’t aware of the deceit within my own ranks.”

Apa’ii gestured toward three half-elves suspended together above a group of frightened gnomes. “Those three there were with you in exile. I half expected them to reveal their identity or be discovered during your isolation. I guess the lack of battle allowed them to maintain their charade.”

Ulaf growled at the revelation. “There was no reason for us to test our magic. Why would they not return to their natural form rather than being imprisoned with us?”

“There are many, especially within the elven clans, who worship you even as others revile you. They fought alongside you for generations and, I dare say, they think of themselves more as Erlkönig than anything else. Do not punish them for being so devoted.”

Ulaf nodded. “Repulsion is a reaction we expect from others. Reverence is not. I was unaware we had such allies.”

“Darkness is always a fascination for those dismayed by what they find in the light,” Apa’ii said. “You yourselves were born of a rebellion built on perceived betrayal. Whether that betrayal was true I do not know but it was enough to send you all into the darkness and there you flourished, perhaps more than you could in the light.”

“So, why do you embrace us now when you so completely shunned us before?” Ulaf asked. “I do not think we have changed during our exile. Perhaps we are more dismayed with the status of the realm now than we were before.”

“We need a balance of darkness to our light,” Apa’ii said. “None of our clans could stand before Dasheng Sen as you did, and I dare say we will need the force of your darkness to combat the inky blackness of the human soul. Their progress has only drawn them deeper into evil.”

As the queen scanned the crowd, she came upon Fleau, Lania, and Tonukasi. Lania was guiding the levitating block of arrows as Tonukasi sat atop, his mouth open in mid-speech. Fleau was in front, carefully holding the silver box containing the cursed sword. They had been invisible, not noticed by the crowd as they started on their journey.

Apa’ii stepped closer to the trio. “Look at how Fleau is holding the silver box,” she said. “See how it leans to her left.”

“Would that not be from the weight of the hilt?” Ulaf asked.

Apa’ii shook her head. “The box was balanced to allow for that. If it is leaning, it can only mean…” The queen walked over to the box and, shocking Ulaf, undid all seven protective spells. Opening the lid confirmed what she had feared. The sword was gone.

“Frederick?” asked Ulaf.

Apa’ii nodded. “He likely embedded magic only he could use. He has the sword and has escaped. Finding the sword is now this realm’s top priority and Frederick’s life is expendable.”

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