They made it a full day into the plains without attack from man or beast. Even from his vantage high upon the back of his stolen mount, the swaying grass still eclipsed Declan’s vision. He was too distracted to care.
It’s the Folk’s fault, he told himself, theirs and King Julien’s. If he hadn’t started this gods-damned war, if the Storm Fae hadn’t taken my prism, if I’d known my own strength…. The thoughts were little comfort.
Declan gripped the reins with white knuckles as his horse trotted along behind Robin’s. The orchid quaked with every step. Its stalk shivered, its thick paddle-leaves jerking this way and that, ready to fall at a moment’s notice. He inhaled.
One, two, three… he counted to eight before releasing the breath. The meditation reminded him somewhat of his days at Tower Vestriam, working under Christof to hone the skill. Unbidden, another memory surfaced.
Eric’s comforting hand touched his shoulder. His smile reminded Declan there was more than death and misery in this world. He adjusted his glasses in that way he always did, a simple gesture which never failed to bring a grin to Declan’s face.
He held him close in the snowy courtyard, his kiss the only warmth in that dreadful night.
The vision faded, replaced by the disgust and pity he’d last seen. Eric’s body lying unconscious in the dirt.
Declan forced the memory away, hiding it too behind the shadow of the orchid. He hoped the flower would hold. He needed it to.
After untold hours of riding in silence through the swaying grass of Icandia, it wasn’t until the party dismounted to make camp that Freddy raised his voice. “So that was Eric, huh? He… seemed nice.”
“He is,” Declan answered, “…or at least, he was.”
“After all the bullshit Croveus has fed him?” Sarah snorted. “That’s about as nice as you can expect.”
“He…” Declan forced himself to breathe, “he said he’d seen the bodies himself.”
“Well I’m willing to bet he didn’t know Julien was holding Freddy hostage. I’m bloody certain he didn’t know shit about the Fae. I wouldn’t be surprised if according to Croveus you just fucking waltzed in and murdered everybody for the gods-damned fun of it.”
Robin chimed in, “That would make sense. Remember the violet mage was worried about ‘setting him off.’ Maybe the official story is Declan lost control and needs to be put down?”
Declan shuddered. In a way, that story was true. He had lost control in that throne room. Just because the immediate victims had deserved his wrath didn’t make it any more an intentional action.
“You were at Vestriam,” Freddy said. “What did you think of him?”
“I didn’t really interact with him much,” Robin shrugged. “He was two years ahead of me, already working on his thesis while I was still in red. He was nice enough arranging Da’s help smuggling us out, I guess.”
Above them the early summer sunset painted what exposed sky there was in orange and red.
“Well I hope he’s alright,” Sarah said, her eyes fixed on Declan as he quietly cut down the grass around their camp, “and not just for his sake.”
Chaos reigned in the streets of Reondar.
With every step he took, refugees collapsed to the stone, merchants fell to the floors of their shops, and what few guards patrolled the streets simply looked on as their skin turned scarlet.
Where the nothing mage walked, death followed.
Those that could ran, though they knew not to where they fled. There would be no shelter from this storm.
Though no emerald glow filled the air, he knew, somehow, that his mana sight stayed up, clouding his eyes in its glimmerless black. Nonetheless, the colors of the city before him remained unmuted, from the alabaster of the Towers behind him to crimson of the citizens’ flesh.
Already the stench of vomit clung to his nose.
The one mercy in the maelstrom of suffering was that not a single cry reached the mage’s ear. The bell drowned them out well enough. Its deafening toll sang a dreadful song, a song he’d earned in a way the fleeing innocents had not.
Still he walked.
His muddy boots squished against the uneven cobble. No matter how he scraped or stepped, the remnants of the quagmire clung to him, leaving behind a trail of footsteps in his wake. He thought for a moment to clean them, but he knew it would be no use. He had places to be.
When at last he reached the gates of Reondar, he didn’t stop to gaze over the havoc he’d wrought. He knew it by heart. Nor did he pause at the corpse of the healer outside, his freckles obscured by the red of his skin.
He knew this sight far too well.
Instead he trekked, finally free from the reek of death as he traversed the empty countryside. It wouldn’t last.
He saw the first of the Fae the moment he entered Red’s Crossing. They stood together. Storm, Dark, and Deep alike looked on, untouched by his poison as they grinned their knowing smirks.
A few even opened their mouths in laughter, or at least what the mage took for laughter beneath the oppressive toll of the bell around his neck. He fought to ignore their leers.
The townspeople didn’t bother running. They simply stared, standing rigidly upright as their complexions grew ever redder. He passed them too.
As he climbed the hill up to Croveus Manor, the mage braced himself. He knew his mother would chastise him for tracking mud into the house, but try as he might his boots would not stay clean. He pressed on.
Three figures awaited him at the gates. They didn’t speak—no words could pierce the deafening toll, but greet him they did. Edward and Dewie nodded, each opening one side of the double gate to allow him through.
Charlie, skin red as the walls of Vestriam, flashed a smile. It was a simple thing, his grin, yet of all the horrors he’d seen on this day’s journey, it was the first to make the mage falter. He remembered though the haze of time how once that smile meant so much in friendship, loyalty, and trust.
Such memories rang hollow now.
He stepped past his childhood friends into the estate itself. Master Thern’s gardens wilted before him, every lilac, daisy, and rhododendron shriveling into curled up husk of its former self.
When he finally entered the manor itself, he stepped not into its lavish entry hall, but directly into a familiar bedroom.
Helena Croveus stared back at him.
Her pale face succumbed to his toxin before his eyes. She didn’t collapse. She didn’t cry out. She opened her mouth to speak, her words lost to the din of his bell. Behind her, something moved.
The nothing mage shifted his ebon gaze to the unclothed form as it climbed from his mother’s bed. Though his ivory skin and silver wings matched no court he knew, the creature was undeniably Fae.
He too moved to speak, but even without the drowning chime he wouldn’t have heard its message.
The bell tolled louder.
The mage took a step back.
This couldn’t be happening. Something had to be…
“Oh for fuck’s sake!”
His stomach exploded in pain, sharp and simple where the invisible blow had landed. He doubled over, retched,
…and shot awake.
Declan jerked upright, his core still aching where Sarah’s foot had struck it. He looked up at her. She leaned over, grasping her amulet by the chain to keep the red-hot iron disk away from her chest.
“Declan! Get your shit under control!”
It took her shout for the mage to realize the source of her ire.
The bell still rang.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, Declan swore to himself as he frantically conjured the orchid. He breathed. In and out. In and out. Much as it quieted the angry chime, the flower alone couldn’t silence the golden bell, not in its wilted state.
“I’m trying!” He snapped at her. In and out. He tried to slow his racing heart, rocking himself back and forth as he meditated. There is still good I can do, he reminded himself. I can still save more lives than I’ve taken. That’s what matters. It’s all for a reason. It has to be. I just need to stop the syzygy…
The seconds it took to revitalize the orchid and cease the hateful knell may as well have been hours. A gash still ran across the its stalk where Eric’s words had hewn it with the strength of an axe, but the verdant luster of its leaves still cast enough shade to hide in.
Declan let out a breath. His blood still coursed with adrenaline as he addressed the others. “A…are you ok? Did the amulets hold?”
“Looks like it,” Freddy said, a conjured block of ice pressed to his chest, “hurts like a bitch, though.”
Robin winced. “I’d rather a burn than the alternative.”
“I—um—I can heal you—”
Sarah cut him off, “I think we’ve had enough of your magic for one night.” She stormed off, an angry silhouette in the soft moonlight.
Robin approached. “I’ll take some healing,” she met his gaze, “I trust him.”
A hesitant smile crossed Declan’s face as he raised a hand and envisioned the modified spell form for simple burns.
The steel mage relaxed the moment the white mana struck her chest. Once the greater burn faded away, he turned his attention to her hand, charred where she’d tried to tug the hot iron away.
It took only a few minutes and a tiny portion of his vast reserves to clear away the wounds he’d caused. Freddy stepped up next.
“Thanks,” he sighed as Declan healed the black mark on his chest. “I’m—uh—I’m sorry about Sarah. She… let’s just say she has strong opinions.”
“I understand. Really, I should be apologizing to you. If I hadn’t—”
Freddy interrupted, “Without you we’d all be dead. Maybe Robin could’ve avoided the war, but Sarah and I? We were in the thick of it. You’ve saved my life twice now, Declan. I can take a burn or two for it.”
“Thank you, Freddy.”
“Now,” he held up the still melting block of ice he’d created, “I know a certain foul-mouthed lightning mage who could really use this. Goodnight, Declan.” With a nod, the man turned, crossing the camp to rejoin his sullen girlfriend.
For his part, Declan lay back down onto the relatively soft heap of cut grass. He didn’t sleep. Instead, he gazed at the stars above, and the few dark clouds which drifted past them. His mind raced.
If he’d leaked enough mana to burn so badly… he shuddered. However strong he’d become, he hoped the amulets would hold. Iron could only get so hot without melting, and if the inscription malformed he wouldn’t just be healing burns.
He’d be digging graves.
In the meantime, he’d need to do something about the dreams. Patient as they were, even Freddy would eventually grow tired of being awoken by his bell, even if he healed the damage.
With a sigh, Declan reached into his pack to withdraw his notebook. If he wasn’t going to rest, he may as well make use of what remained of the night. With a quick cantrip to carve down his pencil, he got to work.
The enchantments were simple enough. He’d been successful enough making the amulets, and converting mana to heat was much simpler when the inscription could surround the affected area instead of just sitting within it.
He refrained from testing it that night. Raising enough stone to build a chamber would certainly disturb the others. He didn’t want to wake them a second time.
Either way, he had no doubt the design would be effective. Two feet of stone could absorb three hells of a lot more heat than the thin iron amulets.
Task complete, Declan allowed himself to lay back once more. His eyes remained wide open as he watched the sky, but his mind returned to the contents of the dream, to Red’s Crossing. It was a curious place for his subconscious to wander, one he hadn’t considered for quite some time.
He supposed the plains had jogged his memory, of both the town and his flight from it. More interesting, however, was the creature he’d seen there. It was a perfect match for how he envisioned the Winter Fae.
He wondered if they actually looked like that. He knew Winter Court had by far the most interaction with humans; they were the source of most modern faerie tales. Perhaps the old stories had described them well.
The compromising position in which he’d dreamt them brought Declan to ponder his parentage. His lack of wings or claws or webbed fingers was confirmation enough he was no child of the Fae, even if a dream could’ve counted as evidence to the contrary. He snorted at the idea.
Still, he had questions. Julien had implied he had some hidden knowledge of Declan’s father. He considered the conniving king himself as a candidate, especially after seeing Helena and him at the ball, but the timing didn’t work out. As far as he knew, Lady Croveus hadn’t left Red’s Crossing for months before falling pregnant.
His mother’s tale about a traveling poet may well have been true. Still, if Julien had known some secret before he died, it was entirely possible the Folk were involved. The Dark Fae had likely been the ones to tell him.
Declan tried to push the thought from his mind. Here in the plains, he could only speculate; he’d learn nothing new tonight. Still, the question weighed on him. Maybe it did matter. If the Fae had been manipulating his life that far back, it had to be worth knowing why.
Were they the source of his magic?
Now that was a concept that truly did send a shiver down the mage’s spine. What if there were more like him hiding among the mundanes? If he didn’t play along with the Fae’s plans, would they find another nothing mage to wreak their havoc? He shuddered.
As the night dragged on, Declan grew more and more convinced it was a matter worth investigating. Answers, especially where the Fae were involved, were scant, but perhaps he could dredge some up if he searched in the right place.
Of course, he’d find none in the towering grass of the Icandian Plains, but his party traveled west. It would only be a matter of weeks before they reached the crowded trees of the Gindor woods.
If he wanted information on his birth father, his mother seemed the best place to start, and if they kept their current course, it would only be a few days detour to visit Red’s Crossing.