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Rated: E · Other · Action/Adventure · #2190420
How Time Flies

How Time Flies

Divider (2)
Will was still in bed, lying in the warm darkness of his room, but he knew he was about to get up. It was these moments of denial that were the most torturous. If he would just throw off his covers and accept it, everything would be easier …

He knew this.

And yet still, every time, it was the same routine.

Now he was wishing the damn thing would chime.

It had been nearly ten minutes since the first screech echoed off the castle walls.

Well … maybe they retreated?

Could it be possible that, for once, they had given up on testing the force fiel−?

The triangular sapphire on his nightstand sprung to life, and a sky blue glow splashed over the room, pulsing with the familiar, cheerful chime that seemed to mock him on nights like these.

He let out a long sigh and then reached out to touch it.

“Took you three minutes longer than usual,” he said.

“My apologies, Majesty,” the excited voice of Shamblin Vet, the lead Hangar Clerk responded. “But the details are still coming in. There appears to be …”

Will sat up, sighed again, and massaged the bridge of his nose.

“Sometime tonight, or this morning, or whatever this is, Mr. Vet.”

“Well .. it appears to be a wagon convoy en route, sire.”

Will’s senses gathered all at once.

“Did you say wagons? Like … an on the ground convoy? Did I hear that correctly?”

“Yes, sire, that would appear to be the case,” the voice answered, as if it belonged to the glowing stone. “And they have attracted the attention of an unusually large horde of the creatures.”

“Yeah. Ringing the dinner bell will do that.” Will was out of bed now, fastening the collar of his dark blue tunic. The fabric was comfortable, designed for easy movement and embroidered with the golden insignia of the Sindell Royal Air Force. “Who spotted them?”

There was a slight pause before the sapphire responded.

“Sky Knight Riller, sire.”

Will fastened a heavy leather belt around his waist. It supported a long broadsword that swayed at his hip, its jeweled hilt sparkling in the large room’s arcane glow.

“Alright, well, good work as always, Shamblin.”

“Thank you, sire. And how does His Majesty wish to proceed?”

“How do you think?”

Dressed and awake, Will made his way to his chamber door.

“Yes, sire. I’ll have them prepare your ship.”

He opened it, crossing the threshold just as the room fell back into darkness.

Divider (2)

“His Majesty, the King!” heralded William’s first steps into the Grand Hallway, shouted by one of the guards who flanked his bedroom door. He had been hearing His Royal Highness for as long as he could remember.

His Majesty made him want to look around for his father.

There was only one other person present to hear it: Jaret Brandon, the hallowed Lord of the Sky.

“Mornin’,” he said with a nod as their paths met.

Then he turned on his heels to match Will’s stride as he passed.

“Convoy?” Will said. “Who would be that─”

“Stupid?” Jaret asked, his tone serious. “Someone desperate as hell, I guess. Why don’t you just come up with a law against the apocalyptic state of the world or something?”

Will yawned.

“You’re an idiot,” he said, stifling a grin.

Their boots echoed off the towering walls and arched ceilings as they passed into an expansive hallway lined by a collection of busts. It was known as the Corridor of Kings, but to Will it felt more like Scrutiny Row. Every monarch, stretching back to the founding of the Bryce Dynasty, seemed to judge him with those perpetual, vacant stares.

His father’s would have been the only comforting presence, had it only been there.

In time, Will knew, the murals and mosaics would fade from the royal antechambers. The lush tapestries would begin to come unraveled, and the treasures of the Kingdom of Sindell would become even more precious; squirreled away in vaults by old men, for all but the most sacred rooms and important occasions.

Even the paint on the ancient monarchs around them would grow pale.

Just as their memory would fade from the world and history.

No one was coming to save them. He knew that now.

There was no knowing what had happened to his father, let alone when they would see marble again. The food stores were already running low. The people were already─

Will took a deep breath, closed his eyes and sighed it out.

“What else do you know?”

“No more than you,” Jaret said. “Same wake up call. Same information, I'd imagine.”

They rounded a corner and passed quietly through a hall decked in lavish crimson carpet, the walls bearing gilt-edged portraits of many men. They were not like the portraits or the regal busts of kings, lords with their polished looks and grand costumes. No, these men were from a different time ─ a time that felt far older and bygone than the mere decade since it ended. Rugged and lone, no two were alike, or even similar.

These were the Lords of Assassins, a chapter of Sindell’s history some would rather forget, but one his father insisted on honoring.

“We cannot rewrite the past, nor should we seek to,” Will could still hear him say.

The final portrait was that of Sir Donovan Kerrick, the man Will blamed for his brother’s death, and the only one he pointedly made effort never to look at. Beyond it, at the end of the hall, was a massive door carved with the seal of the Adamant Gaze.

Above it, was the now defunct order’s motto: Justice Over Mercy.

Two guards stood at the door, and they moved in perfect unison to open the way.

Both tilted their halberds in salute. Neither said a word.

Will swept into the lobby where the main corridors of the castle converged, with Jaret close behind him. As always, he immediately felt the excruciating sensation of people watching him.

His uniform was a wreck.

He was a wreck.

In the center of this chamber, an ivory pillar rose from a marble floor, crowned by a golden miniature airship shown in an eternal climb towards a majestic dome overheard. This was the work of his father, King Graham Bryce, as well. When some ministers first suggested the ship be melted down to pay wages to the militia, in the days before all was lost, he had stood against it.

Now the ship glittered in the golden glow of nearby lanterns. During the day, however, sunlight streamed through the dome with an ethereal warmth of a different time. A time that now felt as bygone as the hall they’d just walked through.

The days of seeing the white cities of Sindell stretching from green fields, to the crystalline coasts and cliffs of Zarponda, felt more like the stuff of children's books than reality. The high arches, circular openings in each allowing yet more of the outside in, seemed too delicate to hold up so many hopes.

There was no hope anymore.

There was only the next mission.

There was only the daily grind that would one day grind all Will cared about to nothing.

The Royal Hangar entrance lay beyond.

On any night, this intersection was a hub of activity. Tonight, even at this hour, the commotion was geared more towards mingling than urgent business: Word had already spread that this was not just another patrol sent to fend off the demons, and the chorus of voices escalated briefly when the prestigious pair was spotted.

Then it quieted as the king approached.

All in the crowd bowed low as Will passed, so that his words came amidst a smattering of nods, waves, and smirks that looked more like grimaces to him.

“It’s sad,” he said quietly, through clenched teeth in the guise of a smile. Finally, they passed the last of his subjects. “Living in the last pocket of civilization and humanity still worships idols.”

“You’re not an idol, Bryce, you’re our king,” Jaret responded immediately.

“What’s the difference?”

The Sky Lord hesitated briefly, clearly intent on answering the rhetorical question.

Taking some time to choose the right words, he finally settled on: “There’s a difference.”

Will said nothing.

“I’ll tell you what really concerns me, though,” Jaret went on.

Will glanced over just as they passed the golden airship.

“It’s been less than a year, and you’re already playing the reluctant sovereign.” For an instant, Will’s smile was genuine. “I’m not sure I can be friends with someone so cliché.”

Another pair of guards opened the heavy oak doors to the hangar.

There, on the other side, the entire Royal Council was waiting. It was this sight that redirected the full of the king’s attention, and he spread his arms with a wide smile, as if he had expected them to be waiting there all the time. In truth, the signs of his shocked surprise were just buried as deeply as his daily despair, and as expertly hidden as only painstaking practice affords.

He had thought the hour alone would have saved him from what was becoming a ritual.

“My lords!” he yelled loudly, even slapping his Head Chamberlain, Viceroy Giles Corey on the shoulder as he entered the throng. Around him were about two dozen men. Most of them wore dark clothing, in the style of the Head Chamberlain’s own, though here or there a clear aristocrat could be seen. “To what do I owe this great honor?”

Jaret Brandon permitted himself a slow, wolfish grin; but he could not say anything.

He was in awe, as he always was in moments like these. No one could say they knew Will better and yet every time, the master politician that was in his best friend could have fooled even him.

His father had taught him well.

“His Majesty knows our position on this matter full well,” Corey said hurriedly, distracted a moment by the boom of the guards closing the hangar doors behind them.

The king never stopped or slowed his stride towards the airships, increasing the urgency in his advisor’s tone to an almost comical plead.

“This is madness, sire! Simply unacceptable!” another of the nobles chimed in.

“Oh?” Will asked, as if hearing this for the first time. “Your Graces confuse me.”

Corey huffed, offended.

“Your duty is at your station! You are lord of the entire realm, not some soldier or servant!”

As they continued down the narrow corridor, the sounds of controlled chaos grew louder with every step. The hangar was near. Here, mirroring the style of the busts in the Corridor of Kings, and the Hall of the Adamant Gaze, beautiful portraits of the greatest airmen in Sindell Air Force history hung on either side.

This was a hall Will could have imagined himself being honored some day.

This was a place he felt he belonged in.

It was also where he usually took a deep breath and prepared himself for the challenges ahead.

Tonight, Giles Corey was making that impossible.

“Your place is to lead, majesty, on the throne,” the old man was saying. “Not in these ... these wretched abominations.” Ignored, the Chamberlain saw no other alternative. “It is the job of inferior souls that you do!”

“None taken,” Jaret said.

Corey snapped a glare at him, and that hesitation was enough to nearly pass the king completely, as he had stopped to face his advisors in that instant.

Inferior,” William said calmly. He took a deep breath, gathering every shred of restraint he could muster. At last, he continued: “These abominations, these inferior men and women, are the only thing keeping both you and our realm alive.”

The elderly man bowed his head, humbly diverting his eyes.

“Forgive me if I have offended your majesty,” he said, stung. “I only wish to─”

“I am perfectly aware of what you wish. However. If you believe that this crisis is like anything else you have faced before, then you, Viceroy Corey ….” William paused a moment, looking past the Chamberlain to the rest of his advisors. “All of you, are grossly detached from reality. Wishes, no matter how noble, will not suffice.”

Viceroy Corey said nothing.

In the end, he was a loyal servant to the crown, whose beliefs were rooted in an antiquated vision of how a kingdom was meant to be ruled. But what he didn’t understand, what none of them did, was that those ways were the very first casualty of the darkness that had overtaken not just their kingdom, but the whole of Ciridian. For all they knew, all of Ara.

Or perhaps, more likely … they just couldn’t accept it.

Regardless, Will had known Giles Corey all his life, and it was sad to see him so frightened.

So confused.

“Old friend, listen to me,” he said, placing both hands on the man’s frail shoulders. “We cannot hide behind the force field forever. Where you see protection, I see a burial shroud closing in. We don’t even know how it works. Every day I wake up, and I must wonder if it is the last for all of us.” The Head Chamberlain looked up at this, again establishing eye contact with his king. “A throne is only a thing,” Will finished. “It would burn just like everything else.”

There was nothing political in that moment.

Only an old man addressing a young one he loved.

“Your father would be very proud of you,” Corey whispered in a breaking voice, and he was forced to clear his throat. “Although I fear it will mean an end to us all.”

“My father’s beliefs are my own.”

“Yes, and so, Sindell has already lost one king.”

For the first time, Will seemed to reflect on the old man’s words.

His faraway gaze was reminiscent of when he was a boy being reprimanded by that same voice.

“Only he had you, my king,” the Viceroy went on. “You cannot say the same.”

Even Corey knew better than to make direct reference to the loss of Dorsey, but on that subject, as it has been for years, there was nothing more powerful than silence.

After a long pause, the Chamberlain’s head canted to the side in unspoken hope.

He hoped his message, or at least some part of it, had hit home.

But like all hopes in Sindell, it was not to be.

“On the contrary, my dear Chamberlain,” Will said. “I have me as well.” Will turned on his heels to continue down the hall. “Please, return to your chambers and get some sleep, my lords,” he said after his back was turned. “We’ll reconvene under the sun.”

Behind him, Jaret shoved through the Council, offering a polite, but amused “Your Grace” to the Head Chamberlain as he brushed passed him after the king.

Will did nothing to acknowledge his friend’s presence as he came to his side.

Jaret spoke just as the hall opened into the titanic chasm that was the Sindell Hangar.

“‘I have me as well’?”

Will smiled.

“It’s all I could think of. Keep walking.”

Divider (2)

Sky Knight Riller spotted them immediately.

“Majesty!” he bellowed over a cacophony of high-pitched airship turbines, shouting voices, and a host of bustling activity. Will and Jaret never slowed, and the Knight fell in step with them as they made their way to where their airships, the greatest marvels the world had ever known, stood waiting and ready, surrounded by ground engineers finishing up their preparations.

There was a time when monarchs and noblemen from every corner of the world would travel across oceans and journey thousands of miles to stand in this place. Now, nearly all of those who once stood here were dead, and their realms with them. The few who were not were lost, their fates uncertain.

“So tell me about this convoy, Wess,” Will said, abruptly changing his path to avoid an engineer who was hurriedly hauling a cart of spare parts.

“Three wagons, sire,” Riller started. Fresh from his patrol, he still wore his leather flight gloves. “Stopped on the Main Gate Thoroughfare less than five miles out.”

Will nodded.


“Yes, sire. Circled into a defensive position. We offered support as long as we could, but there were only two of us. We reported the situation and returned to gain reinforcement.”

“Exactly as you should have,” Will said. “But I know that look. There’s something else.”

The Sky Knight paused.

“I can’t be sure,” he said, and shook his head slightly. “But some of the Winged Creatures seemed to be brought down … without our intervention.”

“You wanna be a little more specific?” Jaret asked.

“As we took attack formation, I thought I saw some of the demons fall out of the sky, my lord. Before we raised a hand against them. I can’t be any more specific than that.”

“You don’t have to be,” Will said. “Are you certain you’re up to this? It’s already been a long night for you, I’m sure.”

“Always, sire,” Riller said. “To be left behind is torture.”

Will smiled.

“I know the feeling,” he said. “Get to your ship and wait for my order,” the king said, punching him lightly on the shoulder. Riller bowed his head slightly and veered off on a separate course towards his airship.

“What are you thinking?” Jaret asked.

“I don’t know. But if I know Wess, it happened just as he reported.” Will’s airship was in sight, and he shrugged, taking the first few steps away from the Sky Lord. “We’ll just have to see for ourselves. See ya up there.”


With a lazy wave, walked away.

Will’s ship bore no markings that might indicate its pilot was the king. It waited like a living, breathing thing in its proper zone. It was an extension of Will’s body, and whether he admitted it or not, it was an addiction: a deep, exhilarating addiction.

“Are you all right, milord?”

The voice behind William belonged to his engineer, and it brought him back to the present. The king’s hands gripped the vertical rails on the small metal stepladder attached to his aircraft, but he had yet to take his first step up.

“I’m fine,” he said to the boy, turning his head. “How’s your little sister doing?”

“Very well, sire. My mother and father were proud of the letter you sent them. Not everyone is congratulated personally by the king.”

“If I only had the time,” Will said, reaching out and ruffling the kid’s hair. “Anything I should know?”

The boy engineer spoke as he watched Will climb up:

“Both of the aft turbines needed to be replaced, but it was scheduled maintenance.” After the king was standing in his cockpit, he unhooked the ladder and pulled it free. “Nothing to worry about.”

Will looked to be adjusting something on the canopy.

Still standing, he glanced down and winked.

“Well enough, Henry. See ya in a bit, eh?”

“I’ll be waiting, sire,” he said, then bowed and ran off.

Will watched him go on for a moment. He took a deep breath, finishing the task of unlatching the canopy so that it could be slid forward when ready.

Looking down, he picked up the cylindrical emerald sitting on the narrow seat. When he went to slide down into it, however, he was shocked at pain in his side. He found himself turned at an awkward angle, and as the reason began to register, William rolled his eyes.

His sword was still attached to his belt.

The hilt was pinned between him and the seat.

Reaching back, Will snapped his belt buckle, and the sword fell into the seat. Twisting more, he reached back, grabbed it, and pulled the weapon free.

“Stupid,” he mumbled to himself, sliding the weapon under his seat, and locking the sheath into its designated crook.

The sapphire on the airship’s gauge panel sprung to life in a fit of sky blue light, along with that damned cheerful chime.

“Happens to the best of us,” a familiar voice said, and Will looked across the hangar to see Jaret, who waved. He was already buckled into his airship, and even from this distance, Will could see the stupid smirk on his face as he continued his preflights.

“Waiting on your word, Majesty,” came another voice.

It was Shamblin Vet.

Leaning back into the seat, this time with no resistance, Will touched the sapphire.

“Copy that,” he said, reaching up to the harness and securing the straps tightly around his shoulders. “Do me a favor, and open a link to Lockhart.”

“As you wish, sire.”

Divider (2)

From high atop the ramparts overlooking the Royal Highway, General Graydon Lockhart stood with his archers. The towering fortress walls and massive steel gate that once protected Sindell served no purpose now. Before him, countless generations of his fathers defended the realm with their blood. Now, much to the General’s amusement, he often thought of himself as sharing the masonry’s fate.

For the shield, the mysterious blessing, was the real protector of the Kingdom: he, like the walls, was old and obsolete.

“Will they drop it tonight, sir?” one of the archers beside the General asked. There was no fear in his tone, only curiosity.

“One would hope,” the General answered, shifting the breastplate of his armor with one of his massive, gauntleted hands. “Otherwise I’m standing out here for no reason, and his Majesty will have even bigger problems than demons.”

The archer laughed.

Then, as if on cue, the small, diamond shaped sapphire attached to the General’s belt began to blink.

“Young Shamblin Vet, I presume,” he said after touching the stone. He turned his attention back out towards the Highway as he waited for a response.

“Not tonight, General. I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for me.”
It was the voice of the King, which in turn, caught the attention of the surrounding troops. But the murmurs were cut instantly short with a simple raise of the General’s hand.

“I’ll do my best to manage, Majesty,” he said. “To what do I owe the honor?”

Divider (2)

“I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen when the force field goes down tonight,” Will said, now settled into the cockpit. He was watching the pressure gauges rise. “Don't know if you’ve heard, but it’s a convoy we’re going out to.”

“I have,” the General’s voice said.

“Well, you’ll agree it’s out of the ordinary.”

For a moment, the sapphire just blinked.

Then: “You suspect a trap.”

“Not necessarily,” Will said, pulling a flight glove over his right hand. “But not ruling it out. Just keep a heads up.”

Divider (2)

Looking up at a large pocket of Winged Creatures hovering outside the shield, General Lockhart snapped his fingers to get the attention of his archer Captain. He pointed to the threat, and continued as the development spread throughout the ranks.

“Our heads are always up, my liege. When can we expect to see you?”

“Soon,” was the king's response.

General Lockhart leaned forward against the stone bastion, stretching his back and breathing in the crisp air. He surveyed the horizon beyond the bluish tint of the shield as he spoke.

“I have ten thousand archers spread throughout the city, all where experience has shown them to be the most effective. Even if you’re worried about some sort of ground attack, the force field is never down long enough—”

Divider (2)

“—to warrant any serious concern.” Will nodded, tumbling the emerald cylinder over and over in his hand. “Whether it be the overgrown bats or something else, we’ll be fine.

“I know,” William said. “May the Heavens be with you and your men.”

“Indeed, sire. With all of us.”

The sapphire went dark as the link to General Lockhart closed. But it wasn’t inactive for long.

“Sham,” Will said, touching the sapphire again.


“Link the team.”

“Linking in progress.”

It was the last step before ignition: configuring the gemstones so that the links between all were locked open. When that happened, General Lockhart, and all of the airmen on the team, were in constant contact, as if standing in the same room. It was not as simple as it sounded.

Nothing ever was, Will thought.

The ability for open communication was essential, but dangerous. Panic or indecision could be instantly catastrophic, causing very the chaos that the system was meant to prevent. It was another lesson learned the hard way, as most were, in the early days of flight.

“Sapphires linked,” Shamblin’s voice confirmed, and then ended with the customary: “Long live Sindell. Long live the King,” as the airship turbines fired up within the hangar.

“Alright, wings, report in,” Will said, testing the controls. He pulled back and forth on the control wheel, feeling the turbines shift and respond flawlessly.

“Sky Knight Wesley Riller. Powered and ready.”

“Sky Knight Stellan Fox. Powered and ready.”

“Sky Knight Thane Grace. Powered and ready, sire.”

“Ready when you are, fearless leader,” Jaret finished.

“Okay, then. The situation is this: A convoy, most likely desperate refugees, unable to wait for sunrise. We’re operating under that assumption for now.” Will inserted the emerald, sending a shudder through the cockpit as the turbines came to life. “Any questions, ask quickly,” he said, bellowing over the thundering engines.

“What do we do when we reach the convoy?” Jaret asked.

“We assess the situation as best we can and then you and I will land at the site,” the king answered, again attentive to the pressure gauges. “Riller.”

“Yes, sire.”

“You’ll be landing with us.”


“Stellan and Grace will provide cover from the air. There are about a million unpredictable variables involved with landing. It’s the most dangerous aspect of this thing, which is why I’ve decided to lead it personally.”

“I’d leave that out of your report, my liege,” Jaret’s voice cut in. “Unless you wanna be engaged in a fist fight with an 81-year-old man.”

“My money’s on Corey,” Stellan said.

Scattered laughter fluttered over the sapphires, and though the king smiled privately to himself, his tone betrayed no emotion.

“Whatever happens,” he said, “one thing is certain. This mission’s gonna come at us fast. That’s no excuse for recklessness.” Will reached up and grabbed the two iron handles attached to the canopy, sliding it forward and enclosing him in the airship. “King has the lead.”

With that, the scream of his turbines blasted through the cavernous Hangar, as he pulled the control wheel to point each downward, and his airship lifted off. Keeping his hand on a stick beside him, he pushed forward until the emerald glistened intently and the turbines reached full power.

One by one, the airships launched out the open roof.

“General Lockhart,” Will said.

He hovered over his city as he waited.

Divider (2)

General Lockhart was looking back over his shoulder, back at the distant airships as they rose like stars out of the hangar. The arcane magic that powered them left a vibrant white halo, and at night, he thought it a beautiful thing to watch.

“Standing by, sire,” he said. Drawing in a deep, slow breath, the General raised his hand. “On your—”

Divider (2)


Will adjusted his levers to direct the turbines aft, pushing once again to full power. His airship shimmered and screamed forward into the night, pinning Will to the back of his seat just as Jaret’s airship moved up directly beside him and into the King’s peripheral vision.

Behind them, the other two followed.

“Stand by,” Will said.

At these heights and at these speeds, the splendors of the great city below played out in miniature. Huge monuments were dwarfed. The City of Hamon, capital of Sindell, the shining light of civilization, seemed nothing more than a sea, glittering like diamonds beneath them, striving in vain against the majestic marriage between magic and ingenuity above.

Will’s father used to tell him that the city seemed sad in these moments.

Almost aware of what it would inevitably become.

Divider (2)

The stars turned to booming supernovas as they passed overhead in a flashing instant. The General’s men stood rigid, taking up fighting stances. The archers ignited their arrows, drew back and aimed upward.

Lockhart watched the airships grow closer to the force field.

Now!” the King’s voice screamed through the sapphire.

General Lockhart lowered his arm, and at once the pale blue force field flickered and disappeared, joining the Kingdom of Sindell with the world.

Exposed, vulnerable:

Naked against what the world had become.

The deafening screeches were horrific, the appearance of the Winged Creatures even worse, and though the ensuing chaos made it impossible to track the airships, it soon became unnecessary for the General to try.

Up! Back up!” the King’s voice was heard screaming again.

“They’re through!” the General yelled.

At once, the force field reappeared, leaving the General to breathe easier.

“Fire!” Lockhart yelled, and the battle was underway.

Divider (2)

“Not wasting any time tonight!” Jaret said, banking left, right, then left again. Swarms of the beasts had come like locusts, hearing the hunting-calls of their kin from miles, perhaps even days away for the swiftest horseman.

Their keening was on a note the pilots were too familiar with:

They scented blood, and the whole countryside was awake with them.

Will saw Jaret’s ship dip down before banking and diving hard. The Winged Creature attacking from the front attempted pursuit, but the powerful airship left it disoriented and lost in the whirlwind left in its wake.

“Engage them as little as possible,” Will said, squinting his eyes and keeping his focus forward. He alternated his sight to the right and left, downward towards the abandoned road. It twisted and turned like a brown snake against the dark greens of the field it ran through.

Moments passed, and each man scanned for their target.

“There sure are ...” Will held his breath a moment, offering the slightest twitch on the control wheel so that he dodged the beast and it went careening by. “A lot of them tonight, aren’t there?” he finished, his voice fluctuating with the strain of his maneuvers.

“There’s the convoy, sire,” Riller said.

“Yeah, I see it,” Will acknowledged, spotting it.

The wagons were circled, but whatever had been attacking them seemed to be gone. The way ahead of them was clear, but the monsters they had passed still blotted out the sky.

“You don’t have to go down there, Will,” Jaret said, true concern in his voice.

Will never hesitated.

“Brandon, Riller, on my lead. Stellan and Grace … start your patrol.”

“Copy that,” Stellan answered, then added: “I have the lead, Gracey.”

“Yes, sir.”

Together, they climbed into the sky, out of sight.

The king dove to the side suddenly, Jaret Brandon and Wesley Riller following in quick succession. Dismounting the airship outside the force field was madness. At night it was near suicide: tonight, it would be even worse.

Will’s ship was the first to level out and hover above the ground, but there could be nothing slow about the descent. The adrenaline pumping through the king’s veins at the thought of leaving his airship was almost enough to drive him mad. At any moment, the peals of Winged Creatures could be heard, their wings like thunder, and they would have to leave the refugees to their fate.

There was a bump as the aircraft made contact with the ground. The rush was unreal. The king withdrew the emerald from the gauge panel, leaving it on his seat.

The three wagons were just ahead, their shadowy silhouettes well defined under the bright moonlight. Beside him, the deafening whirl of Wess and Jaret’s turbines faded and their canopies opened. Will snapped his sword out of its brace on the floor, slid the canopy back by reaching up with his free hand, and brandished the blade; throwing the sheath back into the cockpit as he leapt to the ground.

No words were spoken as he landed on the wet grass, stumbling forward a few steps. Looking up into the sky, he could see the bright blips of Thane and Stellan’s airships as they circled overhead, and his comrades immediately joined him.

“See anything?” Jaret asked, whispering.

“Nothing,” Will said. “Wess?”

Riller had ducked under the king’s airship, watching at their back. “Clear.”

“Let’s go.”

The three began their mad dash for the wagons. The cold air ripped at Will’s lungs, chapping his throat and leaving the taste of blood in his mouth. It was like a nightmare, complete with the nauseous sensation of running from a predator underwater. Completely exposed, it felt like no ground was being gained, and in the midst of the frenzy, Will wondered why they hadn’t landed closer. It soon became clear, however, that imagination was to blame.

Suddenly, the trio reached their destination.

Jaret’s yell of “Will, wait!” was disregarded, and he jumped up onto the back of the first prairie schooner he came to, throwing back the canvas. Recognizing a presence there, the king jumped back and raised his weapon, ready to strike.
He was face to face with a terrified woman clinging to her toddler daughter. Both of them were frozen with fear.

“Hello, sweetheart” he said, glancing up towards the mother, staring into her pale blue eyes. She said nothing. “I’m King William Bryce of Sindell, ma’am. We’re here to assist you reach my city’s gates. Do you understand?”

The woman swallowed hard, and managed to nod.

“I’m going to leave one of my men with you. How many others on this convoy?”

“Three,” she said, her voice hoarse. A few more words were uttered, but trailed off into nothing. Then: “Jaden.”

Screeches sounded all at once from above, followed by the thunder of a pair of swooping airships. Less than thirty yards off, a Winged Creature, sliced neatly in half, crashed into the ground with a sickening plop.

Will took a deep breath, turning away from the fallen beast.

“Alright. Jaret, you’ll come with me. Riller. Guard these two until we return.”

“Yes, m’lord,” Wess said, unsheathing his sword with a clean ring.

“Who would leave a mother and her child alone like that?” Will asked as they broke towards the next wagon. Jaret pointed to the mutilated corpse of the driver, leaning over the slashed bodies of his horses, without looking back.
“I don’t think that was the intention.”

Will chanced a quick glance over.

“Stay alert,” he said.

More shrieks filled the air just as the two came to a stop.

Louder this time.

Jaret took the lead.

“Thanks for the tip,” he said as he approached. Up close, the second wagon was revealed to be a stagecoach, and its horses were missing. Looking in through the glass windows revealed only blackness. Crouching down, the Sky Lord slowly opened the door; intending to peek in.

It was empty.

“Two down, one to go,” he said, looking at Will and rising fully to his feet. He was about to start towards the third when two men walked out of the shadows. Jaret had no time to warn the king before they were upon him, but Will had turned in time, holding the tip of his sword at the closest man’s throat.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“King William. Sire. My name is Darvin Nash, and I humbly request asylum for myself and my family,” he said, his voice surprisingly calm and steady. Despite the cold weather, he was sweating profusely.

Will lowered his sword. “Granted. I was told you were three. The other?”

“There.” The man pointed.

Will looked over in that direction just as Jaret came up to his side. He saw the third wagon, and the distant blue dome that was the shield protecting his kingdom far beyond. “It still has its horses,” Will said, his shocked tone questioning.

“Yes, sire.”

The king had no time to ponder the miracle.

“Alright, listen. By the looks of things, you’ve already been through a horrible ordeal tonight, but I assure you, if we stay out here any longer, the onslaught to come will be even worse. The Winged Creatures cannot see like we do, but they’re picking up our scent as we speak.”

“Yes, my King. We could have never survived this long if not for our,” Darvin exchanged a meaningful glance with his companion. Met with an approving nod, he turned back to William and continued: “Our passenger.”

“What are you talking about?” Will asked.

For the first time, the second man spoke. “We are on a mission from your father.”

Just then, another Winged Creature shrieked and dove down. It retreated, but Jaret was on edge, disturbed by William’s demeanor as he watched it fly away. “Will, we don’t have any time!”

Seeing the fear in Jaret’s eyes, Will buried what had just been said. Only the danger was important. “The wagon that still has its horses. We need to move all of your survivors into it. My men and I will cover you from above, and clear your way on the road as best we can.”

“Thank you, my lord,” the nameless man said.
A demon's shriek close by caused no reaction from Will. At last, he found his tongue, saying, “Don’t thank me yet, just get everyone into that wagon.” Even as Will finished, he and Jaret were already moving away.

“There’s something strange about all of this,” Jaret said as they sprinted back.

“Yeah. That they’re still alive for one,” the king answered.
Jaret nodded. “I don’t like it, Will.”

They made it back to the first wagon to find Sky Knight Riller standing guard behind it, his eyes glimmering when he spotted his king coming back. Will couldn’t blame him. It had to have been excruciatingly tense in their absence.
“There’s still one wagon with horses,” Will said, scrambling up into the wagon and slapping Wess on the shoulder as he passed him. “We’re gonna move these two into it, and then get the hell out of here.”

Riller was smiling, but said nothing. Then he pointed up to the sky.

“By themselves,” he said. “Just as I said, they’re falling by themselves.”

From within the wagon, Will couldn’t see what Wess was looking at as he helped the woman and her daughter to their feet. “You alright, Wess?” Jaret, who was standing beside the king in the wagon asked before Will could.

“Yes. Yes, I’m …” Riller wavered a bit, falling to one knee.
Jaret and the king were on their feet, crouching under the low canvas ceiling, started out with the woman and her daughter. “Take them to the lead wagon,” Will said to Jaret, who nodded. “I’ll get him back to his ship.”

“You’re gonna be fine, Wess. Can you fly?”

Wess, looking down towards the ground, nodded. “Yes, my King.”

“Where are you hurt?” Will asked.

“Left shoulder,” he said, wincing. “Damn things have claws like razor bla-”

His words were cut violently short. Two muscled gray legs extended down from the wagon’s opening, their huge talons framed against the deep shadows of the night. They clamped into Riller’s shoulders like an iron vice, ripping horrible wounds into each. There was no pain in the airman’s eyes, only surprise. And then he was gone, with only a brief scuffle of his boots against the floor as he went.

“No!” Will yelled, trying to rush out. “Wess, no!”

“Will, wait!” Jaret yelled, struggling to pull him back from the edge of the wagon. “There could be more!”

There was nothing to be done. Just like that, Wesley Riller was gone.

A shadow appeared in plain view of the wagon, and Will’s blade jutted out with lightning speed. It was only luck that the strike missed the mark, as it was Darvin Nash standing there.
“Everything’s ready, Highness,” he said. “Please,” he extended his hand to the woman and child and they ran to him. As they clutched him, Darvin made eye contact with the king. “My wife and daughter,” he said, and without another word, ran off.

“Time to go,” Jaret said, leaping down from the wagon.
“He had already been out on patrol,” Will said, distantly. “He should never have been out here.”

“What?” Jaret screamed. He hadn’t heard the king’s words.
Will leapt from the wagon, and the dash to their airships began. They ran with the feeling of ten thousand eyes upon them, with the vision of seeing their friend ripped out of this world. They ran with the rotten feeling of helplessness in their stomach. And to both men, the dash seemed mercifully short, as they reached their kingdom’s salvation. And in that moment … their own.

Will jumped and clawed his way up over the nose of his airship, throwing his sword into the cockpit, and diving head first after it. Twisting around in the seat, it was as if someone else was in control as he jammed the emerald into place and fastened the straps around his shoulders. He could hear Thane and Stellan talking as they engaged the Winged Creatures, and turned to see Jaret lifting off.

“Stellan, Grace! Redirect all efforts to protect that wagon! We’re coming up!”

“I see it, sire,” Stellan Fox came back. “Man, they’re moving!”

“They’re going after the refugees!” Thane Grace yelled.

“Alright, alright, we understand,” Stellan said, his own airship dropping down beside Thane’s. “Just relax, and let’s get as low as we can.”

The two airships went low, just as Jaret and Will began accelerating forward after their launch. As they did, Will looked down at the abandoned wagons, and his friend's abandoned airship. His eyes went forward, and he pushed to maximum power all at once, pinning himself back into his seat.

On the ground, both Stellan Fox and Thane Grace led the way in front of the speeding wagon, ready to attack anything that might appear on the road. “I got four … make that five, preparing to dive on you.”

The others' ships seemed pitifully slow as he followed their arc just before and beneath the new attackers. Would he lose them too? With a single turn of the wheel, his airship was in fast pursuit, right into the nexus of winged creatures.

Jaret saw the king's move, calling, “Will, wait! Leave them to us!”

Will reached down into the tight space between his seat and the right interior wall of the airship, twisting a device that looked like a corkscrew, and four massive blades slung outward. The cockpit shook as the king made his adjustments, and he charged. He could already hear the shrieks turning from anger to pain, the hunter becoming the hunted: Let it stay so!

“Damn it, Will, I said wait!” Jaret yelled. He opened up his weapons as well, watching his best friend engage the winged demons. Limbs and leathery wings fell to the ground under Will's assault, but without Riller, there was no one to protect the speeding wagon’s flank. Others, more clever but no less bloodthirsty, were gaining.

“We’re coming up on the Gate now,” Stellan said, pausing a moment to turn and look behind him. “But we have more of them swarming in behind us.”

“I’ll handle it!” Thane Grace’s eager voice came over the sapphire.

“No you won’t!” Jaret yelled. “Check your twelve, Grace!”
Another half dozen of the demons were coming in to cut the wagon off, and they were on Thane before he could react, clawing and scraping deep gouges into the cockpit. With a veteran's speed and intuition, Stellan Fox slid behind him, tilting his airship so that the blades dug into the attacking beasts. Amid horrid screeches, four of the maimed creatures crashed into the ground at breakneck speeds as the others retreated into the sky.

“Great move, Fox!” Will screamed, pumping his fist with glee.
“Will, look out!” Jaret’s voiced berated him.

The ship bucked as in the throes of an earthquake as the two demons crashed into his ship. The impact killed the beasts, but also stopped up his rear and aft turbines, leaving another damaged. Jaret knew he could not stop the demons closing in on the wagon and save his king.

Will twisted the corkscrew lever again so that the powerful springs on the belly of the ship retracted the blades. He looked up just in time to see another pack of demons charging his wounded ship head on. They was close enough so that the king could finally look one in the pitch-black orbs that were its eyes. Strangely, he thought of the stone busts in the Corridor of Kings.

“Bank left!” Jaret’s voice said.

Will adjusted the control wheel immediately, and an instant later, the extended blades on the Sky Lord’s airship destroyed the demons threatening the King's life, running them through like a hot skewer.

“You alright Thane?” Will asked.

“The attack jammed my turbine axels, sire.”

“How many?”

“All of them.”

The king felt as if a dagger had been driven into his heart.
“Listen to me, Thane. You need to power down.”

Jaret’s airship roared towards the rear of the wagon. It surprised him at first that it had not yet been overtaken, then he saw a few monsters drop to the ground without reason, crashing into the road and flipping end over end in the dust.

But another dozen joined in the pursuit, and Jaret Brandon knew he could never make it in time.

The wagon was lost.

Thane’s voice again:. “You cannot hold them, my King.”

“Don’t worry about that. Power down and land! We’ll send someone for you!”
“I’m sorry, your Highness. I have to do this while I'm still able.”

“This is an order from your king!” Will yelled, his voice breaking. “Land, now!”

Stellan was well aware of Thane’s intentions and he looked over into the Dragoon’s cockpit. Thane Grace looked back, his confident expression strengthened by the look on Stellan Fox’s face.

“I would have made Sky Knight faster than you did,” he said with a smile. “I would have been great.” Stellan could barely speak. Swallowing hard and clearing his throat, he made a fist and pressed it up against his canopy.

“You’re a great, kid,” he said.

Stellan watched the Dragoon’s lips move as he spoke his last words.

“See ya around.”

Thane Grace powered down and the wagon flew past in a blur, just barely missing his airship. Positioning himself between the horde of demons and their target, Thane directed the turbines toward each other. His airship spun like a top. The Winged Creatures flew right into it, most of them decimated in the maelstrom of razor sharp steel. Then the airship crashed into the ground, exploding. Some of the demons flew through the fire, their crackling carcasses crashing into the ground.

Nothing could have survived.

Will let out a yell of rage, punching his gloved fist into the side of his cockpit again and again until he was dimly aware of pain. General Lockhart’s voice sprung across the sapphire.

“King William, we have you in our sights. We’re lowering the force field.”

Will did not answer.

The incandescent shield flickered and dropped. Will and Jaret flew right through it, and from below, Stellan pulled back to fly up and join them. Moments later, the wagon blasted through the Main Gates, and the force field was back up.

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A salvo of fiery arrows flew up into the night, intercepting the Winged Creatures foolish enough to pursue within the shield just as the airships flew past overhead. Many of Lockhart’s men were set about the task of burning demon remains where they had fallen. Beyond he ramparts on which the General stood, two horses skidded to a stop just within the main gate. The lone wagon stood idle.

“Have them escorted back to the castle, Graydon,” the King’s voice said through the sapphire.

“Yes, sire,” he acknowledged, and the stone on his belt fell dormant, deactivated by Shamblin Vet as the mission ended. One of the young archers remained nearby, a member of the general's guard. “Why does he sound so defeated, General? Tonight appears to have been a victory.”

“Can’t you count, boy? Two who left did not return.”

The boy appeared puzzled.

“Casualties are a part of every war, are they not?”

The General turned to face him.

“The strength to know that is earned, son. A right of passage to leadership, and it’s hell.” Graydon paused a moment, exhaling deeply. “Absolute hell.”

There was commotion down below.

Soldiers had reached the wagon, there was yelling, and a few of them drew their swords.

Lockhart took a step closer to the edge of the parapet and looked down.

“What’s going on down there!”

“A Tear, sir! A Tear spies within our walls!”

Two members of the Sindell Guard were restraining the woman rather roughly, as they walked closer to the fortifications and up to present her to the General.

“Hello, Graydon,” she said, and though she didn’t raise her voice, the General heard perfectly.

His eyes widened and he pointed down to the guards.

“Unhand her immediately!”

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Will walked through the hall, Jaret by his side, exactly as they had earlier, only different. Much, much different. Will’s head was bloodied; a result of the near crash landing he endured at the cost of his crippled airship.

Both men’s uniforms were dirty and sweat-stained.

“What are you thinkin’, Will?” Jaret asked. They continued on along the corridors, towards the room where the Tear and her entourage were waiting. The entire Council would be there as well, along with General Lockhart.

“Nothing,” the King said, and it seemed accurate.

As the pair came to their destination, two guards opened the door. Will never broke stride as he entered the large chamber beyond.

There. roaring fire blazed in a massive hearth under a portrait of King Marcus Bryce IV.

The large assembly fell to a knee.

“His Majesty, King William Bryce II,” his herald announced, using the king’s full name, as was custom in the presence of guests.

He was confused. After being told of a Tear passenger on the rescued wagon, Will expected she would be treated as an enemy by his men, and to have her fate in his hands. Instead, the Council seemed as eager and giddy as children.

“Majesty!” Tharod Freen came over to him, hands spread wide. “What glorious news! What a glorious evening!”

Will said as much as he felt.

He said nothing.

Tharod motioned to the beautiful woman who was standing across the room.

“Allow me the great honor of introducing Jaden Brielle. Ciridian Illuminate, Lady of Lornda Manor, Imperatrix of the Antanjyl Hermitage, and most welcome guest and ally to Sindell.”

Everyone else in the room seemed to know what was going on, Will saw glimpses of hope all around him.

He took what felt like a very long time before responding as he stared into the Tear’s violet eyes.

“That’s a very impressive list of things that, to my understanding, no longer exist,” he said. “Including ally to Sindell.”

A murmur of confusion rippled through the Council.

The Tear tilted her head, appearing to consider the impetuous young king more carefully.

There was a hint of amusement in her tone when, at length, she asked:

“What about the welcome guest part?”

William’s lips twisted into a sort of contemplative pout, the mirror image of an expression she had last seen in Sandia.

“I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “But explaining why your people are attacking us would definitely help your chances.”

“They’re not my people,” she said calmly, as if immune to the tension.

“No? You’ll have to forgive me ...” He spread his arms and shrugged in the same movement, glancing around with sarcastic mirth before bringing his attention back to Jaden. “... if, uh, having been attacked by magic and flying demons for the last eleven months seems a little ...” Now his expression and demeanor reset to stone. “Tearish.”

“My King, Illuminate Jaden has been a trusted friend an ally to Sindell stretching back to The Looking Glass War,” Freen interjected. He had obviously been expecting to be included in this conversation, and now forced himself into it.

“So you’re The Illuminate my tutors taught me about as a kid. Negotiated the peace between us and Veil’driel, was it? Only to have them do to you what they tried to do to us in that Civil War of yours. Now the Tri-State is part of that corrupt, painted rust republic ... ” Will sighed. “... the Assembly of the Tribes and your Hermitage have been abolished on Ciridian, and here you are for some reason.”

Tharod blurted out an embarrassed laugh.

“Sire, it is Mistress Jaden who helped your father disband the Adamant Gaze. Who allowed for—”

Will cut him off, raising his hand and shooting an annoyed look in his direction.

“Your brother is alive,” Jaden said simply, and just like that, she changed and seized the momentum of the conversation.

The very feeling in the room.

Jaret Brandon looked over to Lockhart, who was standing beside him, expecting to exchange a confused glance.

But the General’s face was steady.

“To protect him, no one could know the truth. Not even you.” The General found that he had not only attracted the undivided attention of the king, but the rest of the room as well. “Believe me, it has been the great torture of my life keeping that secret from you these last 10 years, but I was bound by solemn oath. Your father and Mistress Jaden forged a pact some years ago. There is more to that history than what you’ve been taught.” He hesitated a moment. “And more going on here than you could possibly know.”

“Only General Lockhart and myself were entrusted with this truth,” added Freen. “Until tonight, we feared the worst. That ...”

The old man hesitated and cleared his throat.

“That I was dead,” Jaden finished for him.

Will sighed, his line of sight drifting down to the floor.

“Dorsey’s ... alive?” He glanced down and ran a hand back through his hair. “You mean, like ...” He looked back up. “Alive.”

“Yes,” Jaden said. “And that is just the start of what we need to discuss ... that is ... if you’ve made that decision yet.”

Will let out a very long sigh. He brought his hands up to his hips for a moment and then crossed his arms.

"What about my father. Is he alive, too?"

The Tear narrowed her eyes on him.

“No,” she said calmly. “I'm sorry." There was a drawn out pause. “You are not as alone as you think, William Bryce,” she said. “Nor has this darkness yet consumed Ciridian.”

“Good to know," the king said, raising his eyebrows. “Because it certainly hasn't seemed that way.”

“Although the range of our airships has made it impossible to be sure,” Jaret admitted suddenly. There was a trace of genuine optimism in his tone that had not been there in as long as he could remember. A flame of hope he preferred to fan for the moment, and it made Will turn to face him. As they made eye contact, it seemed as if Jaret was addressing Will alone. “We haven’t been able to fly past Bryce Valley in over a year. The emeralds lose power."

With a bare nod, Will conceded the point.

“Valith,” Jaden said under her breath.

Encouraged by Jaret’s contribution, Darvin Nash stepped forward.

“My name is Darvin Nash, your Majesty, and I am an Outrider of Veil’driel. The same rogue faction of Mistress Jaden's forces that are attacking you attacked us as well just a matter of months ago. They attack us still. It was your brother who turned them away, along with others of my Order. The Looking Glass War, the bad blood that has existed between our people ... all of it has been a calculated gambit, and all of it must end if we want any chance at all of saving Ciridian."

The Council erupted in a whispering frenzy, clear indication that some, or all, of this information was new to them.

Even to Tharod, who was supposedly in the know.

Will took a deliberate step towards Darvin, silencing them as he spoke again.

“Dorsey is one of you? He's alive, and he's an Outrider of Veil’driel, am I understanding that correctly?"

“He is,” Jaden answered, and she lowered her chin ever so slightly, placing great emphasis on the words she spoke next. “The second prince of the Kingdom of Sindell is now considered one of the greatest heroes of the Republic of Veil'driel.”

Will felt as if he'd been pushed.

It was all he could do not to take a physical step back.

“But ... I ... how is any of this possible? How—"

“Until recently, we had been pinned within our own borders,” Darvin went on, yet more passion rising in his voice.

“Thanks in large part to your brother, we have won a first victory against the enemy,” the second man, Ferris Lang, spoke up. “It allowed Jaden a window to reach us. She left Lornda Manor, was protected by your brother's Point Team in Sandia, and we were ordered to escort her here after she made it to Veil'driel.”

“And I'm just supposed to take your word for all this,” Will said, finding his gaze drawn back to Jaden.

Jaden said nothing at first, only held up a red envelope and glanced to General Lockhart.

"It's from General Creed," she said.

At this, Lockhart's eyes widened, and Will motioned for him to step forward and take it from Jaden. He did so, turning it over to examine the seal.

"It is from Thaddeus," he said. He did not remake eye contact with Will, but Jaden, as he continued. "I can vouch for him, sire."

“I am Ferris Lang, Majesty, and by the order of our master, Constable Fenlow Thean, we humbly pledge our service to the Kingdom of Sindell.”

Both Outriders took a knee before him.

Will did not tell them to rise, and after an uncomfortable delay, the Outriders did so on their own, finding Will had moved over to a roaring fireplace, staring into the fire.

“The young girl and her mother?” he asked. “Why would you expose them to such mortal danger to reach us?”

“Because unless this mission succeeds, milord. Unless the bad blood between our nations dies, and we unite against this threat ... my wife and daughter are already dead,” Darvin answered. “I do not intend to return to Veil'driel until and unless that threat is ended. And we refuse to be separated."

“Then go to them,” Will said, flames reflecting in his eyes. "We are at your disposal. All of you. General, I expect you to oversee this personally. We will convene again in the morning."

"Majesty," Lockhart acknowledged.

Darvin’s shocked expression told the tale. This was most unexpected, but he wasted no time.

“Thank you,” he said, and nearly stumbled as he pushed his way out of the room.

“That is all for tonight,” Will went on, so transfixed on the hearth that he seemed bonded to it.

Only Jaden and the General understood.

His own private atom in—

“My king!” Tharod Freen objected, looking around as if expecting everyone to share his disapproval. “There is much to discuss and no time to waste! This is a historical … an epochal moment!”

Will’s eyes scanned the fire in search of something.

“Mm," he mused, sounding unconvinced, numb, or some combination of the two. "Then the history books will tell of how on their first night in Sindell, our guests’ every need was met. That they bathed, ate and drank their fill,” he looked away from the flames and immediately into Jaden’s eyes. The exchange was intense. “And that they slept long and safe.”

“Yes, my king. It will be done,” Tharod acknowledged.

The old man knew well when to simply carry out the king’s orders, and for the first time since William took the throne, that is precisely who he knew he was talking to. A king.

After another moment, Will nodded to Jaden.

He stepped closer to Lockhart to take the red envelope from him.

"Good job tonight, general. You and your men continue to give more than anyone has the right to expect."

Before letting go of it, Graydon whispered: "So do you."

Will smiled and turned to leave.

The action spurred the room’s occupants to their knees.

Jaden watched as Will passed through the open door and down the expansive hallway beyond.

Past his fellow airmen, his friends, his subjects, all without so much as a nod to acknowledge them.

They bowed low before him, on either side of his path.

He was their captain. Their greatest hope. Their king.

And in more ways than one, their world would be different tomorrow.

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Chapter One  (E)
Lornda Manor
#2190562 by Dan Hiestand
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