Patch 17 (realm of arkon.., p.7
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       Patch 17 (Realm of Arkon, Book 1), p.7

           G. Akella
 
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  ***

  Archmage Altus was standing in the middle of a small canyon, looking up at the clouds above crawling quaintly in the sky, a light breeze tousling his gray hair. He was tired. There was no sense in running any longer. He wasn't going to escape his pursuers, not in their own lands. It had been twelve portals jumps—all of them futile, one giant waste of effort.

  A depression with smooth walls along the edges, and boulders clustered along the bottom. The slopes were lined with reddish limestone, underlying isles of shrubbery and trees that resembled pines. A small waterfalls splashed nearby. A lovely, picturesque place to make one's last stand. Altus threw out several more decoy traps, and proceeded to wait.

  Not at all like Erantia, which is so far, far away now, he thought wistfully, looking up at the sky. Gods! Why did it have to happen this way? He wasn't afraid of death, but his team… How would they make it without him? He had never asked the gods for anything, deeming it unbecoming to distract higher beings from their work—unfathomable to mortal beings—with empty requests. There had been several instances throughout his life when he'd carried out some deity's will (and had been rewarded for it), but he had never asked for anything himself. But now, for the first time in his long life, he was begging for the chance to save his people and the knights of the Red Flame. As for him, he was sure that SHE was waiting for him—in a place that was destined for him—she could wait a little longer while he did his duty to the end.

  Memories flooded his mind, a mighty torrent sweeping him away—two hundred sixty years back in time…

  He stood apart from the buzzing crowd, cupping a glass of Kjenian Tear, gazing out of a huge arched window at the billowing steam. The royal graduation ball was in full swing in all its splendor. It all made for a silly sight—the festive ribbons on the young cadets and sackcloth-like garb on the Academy of Higher Magic graduates. He was irritated by the scurrying waiters and their trays, the scents of perfume, the smiling faces all around him.

  Ten years prior, at his own graduation ball, he had gotten shamelessly drunk, got into a scuffle with Duke Kerat's third son, breaking his face and singing his luxuriant hair, while himself losing three front teeth… and a favorable placement. And now, instead of the enormous Synala with its elven maidens and Rowass wine, he wound up in the small northern Port Vallidu, reeking of mold and codfish. He'd been averse to events such as this ever since.

  Altus took a sip from his glass. He was feeling dizzy from all the flickering faces—diplomats, soldiers, socialites, humans, elves, dwarves! He would be glad to ditch the party—hell, he wouldn't be here in the first place if not for the king's personal invitation… And no wonder, with him being a decorated Knight of the Order of the Maple Branch and commander of Blue Salamanders—the legendary squad that had cleansed the Norleyd Ruins of undead and slain Hartalyon in Kraet Peaks. He was recognized everywhere he went, but given a wide berth upon meeting his dispassionate gaze, with only scraps of phrases reaching his ears: "Yep, that's him all right…"

  "Say, aren't you the celebrated Count Altus, grandmaster of fire, who had defended Vallidu from an undead invasion?" a young woman's voice rang out to his left.

  The mage turned, then bowed his head in deference.

  "How may I be of service, Your Highness?" he spoke with a smile.

  The young woman let out a disappointed sigh.

  "How did you know who I was? We've never met!" she puckered her brow, which made her even lovelier than before. He looked her up and down, noting her shapely girlish figure, the turquoise mantle, the white lily in her hair…

  "With my tattoo expertise, I'd be disgraced if I mistook the House of the Singing Dew for anything else. So, I ask again, princess, how may I be of service?"

  "I want to join your squad!"

  He was taken aback. The second daughter of the head of one of the most powerful Houses—this was truly unheard of…

  "I've just finished my apprenticeship, and I am ready to be tested," her voice broke, "or are you afraid of the complications that might arise with my father?"

  Complications were indeed a concern, and major ones at that, but even a Prince had to obey the Law. Besides, the archmage really didn't give a damn about all the rulers of the Great Forest put together.

  "Princess…"

  "Elsaniel," the girl smiled. "But call me Elsa. I've studied at the Academy; I know how you humans like to shorten your names."

  "Why would you want this? We live by strict rules, and don't do grand receptions," he looked around the hall. "And we've none of this…" he hesitated, "lobbying and intrigue, there."

  The princess burst out in infectious laughter.

  "But you do have adventure. Your squad is all anyone's been talking about the past five years, and life in the princedom is so dull," she made a wry face. "Nothing but…" she twirled her wrist, as if remembering something, "lobbying and intrigue. There!" This time they laughed together.

  "Why aren't you dancing? Or do you expect a lady to beg?" she creased her eyebrows.

  "Princess, it's not that I can't dance well, I can't dance at all…" he felt his face flush.

  "It's easy. Come, I'll show you," she offered her hand.

  His knees weak and lungs gasping for oxygen, Kyam took the young woman's hand and led her into the hall, toward the dancing couples.

  There was a reason he hated these balls. The dance just wouldn't end, and no matter how desperately the mage tried matching his partner's quick and fluid movements, he ended up stepping on her foot and messing up a movement's direction numerous times. By the time the torture ended, he was on the brink of burning a hole in the floor from sheer shame.

  To his shock, Elsa had decided to dedicate the entire evening to him exclusively. They chatted of trifles, drank wine and laughed, and when the ball ended, they left together. And they hadn't parted since.

  And when, forty six years ago in Borderlands, with their squad hemmed in the castle of a backwater barony by a thousand ear-hunters and young drow wolves backed by mages from the House of Twilit Shadows, they were rescued in the last moment by a sudden blow in the enemy's rear courtesy of Lars' knights and Count d'Arysak's heavy cavalry, he carried her lifeless body—sprouting a poisoned arrow—out of the burning castle. And then he personally cut the throats of twenty six higborn captives, including the of the House Patriarch's youngest son.

  A fluttering of wings tore the archmage from his memories, as a huge white bird landed on a boulder fifty feet away. The arrival cried out in alarm, craning its neck, and turned into a cloud of mist. Dumbfounded, the mage peered into the cloud, watching it take the shape of a young woman. Translucent and perfectly still, she gazed at him wistfully.

  "Have you come for me?" Altus smiled.

  Just then there was a tremor a hundred yards away; billows of mist covered the ground, and four towering figures sprang up from it.

  "Wait here, I won't be long," he spoke quietly.

  "I am Prince Saad Khor, First among Equals—Ahriman the Overlord's Throne Attendants—General of the First Punisher Legion, and I have come for you, worm!" a fifteen-foot-tall demon in pitch-black armor stepped forward. "On your knees, and don't even think of resisting. Perhaps then the overlord will grant you an easy death."

  A powerful, dread-inspiring aura emanated from the demon.

  Altus chuckled.

  "I am Count Kyam Altus, Archmage of Erantia, and I spit on you and your overlord's mercy, wretched beasts!"

  Suddenly there was music playing in his head—the same music they had danced to then, two hundred sixty years ago. Altus repelled two Ice Spears and rolled to the beat of the music, evading rocky spikes that shot up from the ground, then activated his traps and conjured up ten astral projections. Smoke flooded into the gorge, and before long he heard the agonizing roar of one of the seven who had stumbled into a trap. A pity, he counted on more casualties than that. But look, Elsa, I'm getting the hang of this! Another pas—a quick portal jump fifty yards to the side, dodging fou
r terrible lightning bolts. An Icy Fan—his go-to spell—then Quicksand and another Fan at the ensnared monster! He teleported again and spun around. There wouldn't be any mistakes this time. Two mighty strikes with Watery Lash at the horned mug that had popped out of the smoke, and an Ice Arrow with a decoy to finish off the beast.

  With his shields already exhausted, he set into the final movement of the dance—hurling a pair of Windblades at the two demons that had appeared to his right, he focused all his remaining strength on the Ice Spear at the one who'd managed to block the blade. The last accord sounded, the music faded, and her tear-stained face appeared before his eyes.

  "I did it, sweetheart! Why are you crying?"

  Several moments later, four demons stood over a body prostrated on the rocks. Clutching his wounded shoulder, pierced by an ice spear, General Saad Khor contemplated dourly the golden glyphs on the chest of Erantia's dead archmage.
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