Blood Oath (Book 2 of Alfireán age)


They rounded the corner to the open plaza in front of the arena just as the sun started to rise. Majestic rays of red and pink hues from the rising globe peeked over the horizon and lit upon the smog left behind by the meteor. It looks like the entire eastern sky is on fire, Drake thought. How fitting. He redirected his eyes down and scanned the plaza. Dozens of makeshift shelters, housing those who had lapsed into unconscious, now crowded the area in front of the coliseum. The upside down V shaped structures were the most basic work of earth magic and would easily be disposed of later; now, however, they and the people milling around them, made the plaza nigh unnavigable. Thankfully, they wouldn’t have to. “Over there,” Drake said, pointing at a group off to the left of the chaos.

Mr. Havanger sat on a translucent golden chair fashioned out one of his shields. Inside of it, The Energizer lightly hummed. A small group of finely garbed men surrounded him and appeared to be in a vigorous argument with each other.

Alf pushed himself off the wall he had leaning against, nodded, and trudged in the indicated direction. As they came closer to the quarreling group, several men, casually milling around the makeshift shelters nearby, struck Drake as odd. Making a mental note, he refocused on the older gentleman.

Rex’s father rubbed his beard in rough, agitated strokes. His face looked carefully blank of all emotions as his eyes casually roved over the plaza, until he caught sight of Alf striding his way. He held up his hand, and the sound of the squabbling men faded into an uneasy stalemate. “I trust everything is well?” he asked over the din.

“Yes, no one else is going to come through the teleportation stone,” Alf answered as he came to a stop in front of the group.

“Well at least that’s some good news,” Mr. Havanger waved at those around him. “I, and the surviving members of the town council, have been discussing what we should do. Personally, I believe we should be focusing our attention on keeping Vackzilian from realizing our fair city is still intact. However, some of these good gentlemen think otherwise.”

A tall, narrow faced man wearing a sleeveless, floor-length outer robe weaved entirely out of gold-plated threads, spoke up, his voice the very model of superiority. “I will not let this city’s commerce dry up because you are all afraid of some charlatan,” he sneered.

A second, overly plump, man, dripping in garish jewels and flashing gold, half shouted, “What’s the use of merchantry if we’re all dead!” His round cheeks bulged in anger, and his face gleamed red as a monkey’s backside.

Mr. Havanger sighed and mumbled something about how he’d rather be fighting another of Vack’s freaks than listening to this drivel. He leaned back in exasperation. “We have been going back and forth like this for hours.”

“I see,” Drake said, taking a step forward. He straightened himself and addressed the noble men. “In this situation, we need to analyze the possible reactions of our foe. Vackzilian, as you all know, is an enigma; however, we do know for certain that he places little to no value on human life. Meaning, if he thinks something is beneficial to him, or will make a good example, he will not hesitate to do so. Regrettably, I think this city was supposed to be one of those examples.”

“And if he finds out he failed to destroy it?” A random nobleman asked.

“If the citizens of Alfireá learn Vackzilian failed to destroy us, he will look weak. The only recourse Vaczilian has upon such derogation to his authority is the annihilation of every man, woman, and child in Glandledale. Not one stone will be left standing. As such, it is imperative we take immediate action in securing the safety of this city. No one must be allowed to leave. Furthermore, we must find a way to mask Glandledale’s presence.”

The narrow faced man swooshed his golden robe and curled his thin lips into a snarl. “Who is this brat? And how dare he run his mouth off in front of us?”

Alf stepped in front of Drake and looked the man directly in the eye as he calmly said, “He is my personal strategist, and without him, we would all be dead right now. You will show him some respect.”

The council member puffed up like a toad. “I don’t have to show respect to anyone. Especially not to some snot nosed kid and his mercenary trash.”

Alf’s eyes narrowed. His muscles bulged and the pompous fool snorted as he said underneath his breath, “Boorish brute.” Drake expected Alf to grab the simpleton by the neck and shake some common sense into him. However, Olivia softly laid her hand on Alf’s back and shook her head. The young High Lord’s face flushed in embarrassment, and with tight shoulders, he faced the man, bowed, and said, “My apologies,” then turned and marched away.

“You had better be,” the council member scoffed.

Alf had bridled his anger; Drake, on the other hand, had had enough. All of his life he had had to watch his Father suffer this type of insolence from the shadows, but not today!

“Mr. Havanger, clap this man in irons and haul him off to jail. Glandledale can ill afford his ilk running amuck at this current juncture.”

Rex’s father rose from his chair and clapped his hands, a look of satisfaction stamped squarely on his face. “It’s about hootin’ tootin’ time someone gave me that order. This here loony has been a pain in the city’s backside far too long.”

The horse-faced noble grasped the lapels of his robe and tugged imperiously. “You wouldn’t dare lay a hand on me.”

“Ay, I would, Marcus.” Mr. Havanger smiled and his bluish grey eyes twinkled. A golden shield sprung to life between his hands as he pulled them apart.

Marcus? Marcus? Where have I heard that name before? Drake’s mind scrambled. Then he remembered; it was when Alf had scared Hervey witless. Now he knew what was wrong with those men casually milling around the group. With a flick of his wrist, he formed a sound warp and whispered to Rex.

As Mr. Havanger’s reversed shield rocketed out and enfolded over Marcus like a giant blanket, Rex gently handed Zaphaniea to Olivia.

“How dare you even think of touching my personage!” Marcus screamed in outrage.

The arena master leaned against the now circular shield. Keeping his right hand solidly pressed against it, he nonchalantly looked at his fingernails on his left hand. “You can either go peacefully or make my dark-hunter’s day.”

Soul Knight appeared out of the shadows, his camouflaged skin and armor morphing back into their normal colors and his white teeth gleaming in the morning light.

“Enough of this facade. Kill them,” Marcus commanded, bringing up his right hand in an imperious gesture. “Kill them all!”

Five shady men emerged from the crowd and drew swords wreathed in blue flames. Or rather, three of them drew their weapons. Before their blades exited their sheaths, Rex dashed in front of two of the assailants, grabbed them by their foreheads, and slammed the back of their heads into the pavement. They were the lucky ones. Less than half a breath later, the remaining three’s arms and legs were skewered with multiple ice spikes by four of Mr. Havanger’s men hiding in the shadows.

A sixth man broke free from the crowd and charged Olivia. Grabbing for her hair, in an attempt to take both her and the grand champion hostage, a two-pronged blade appeared from a device attached to his wrist. Drake, however, was ready for him. As the assassin reached out, he produced a hidden dagger and jammed it into the assailant. Letting the man’s own forward momentum drive it home, Drake thrust the blade beneath the ribcage and angled it upwards. The man stared down at the child in shock and collapsed to the ground.

Bending down, Drake checked the man’s pulse; he wouldn’t be moving again. With a small flick, he cleaned his dagger off on the assailant’s clothes. His weapon slid back into its hiding place just as Alf dashed over and shouted. “What happened?” he asked, his eyes jumping from one downed thug to the next.

“Not much, just cleaning out the trash,” Rex’s father said. He signaled his men to disperse, and the four men faded into the crowd like wraiths, taking their wounded victims with them.

“You old fool. Do you think you bested me?!” Marcus roared, spittle flying from his mouth. In a flurry of motion, he whipped out a sword sparking in indigo lighting and jabbed it straight at Mr. Havanger’s heart.

The blade bounced harmlessly off the inside of the reverse shield, and Mr. Havanger rolled his eyes. With a wave of his hand, he motioned to Soul Knight. The dark-skinned warrior suppressed a laugh, sauntered over, and added his own hand to the shield.

“What are you doing?” Marcus hollered, his eyes widening with terror; all of his earlier bravado had vanished like a tropical mist on a dry, hot day.

Mr. Havanger grimaced and a small hole in the shield opened up underneath Soul Knight’s hand. With a hiss, a bolt of blue lightning shot through the hole and plowed into Marcus.

The council member dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. As soon as the lightning stopped, he shakily rolled to his knees and cursed at them. Soul Knight raised his eyebrows, then released a much larger charge of electricity. This time, he continued the stream of lightning until smoke poured up from the councilman’s golden robes.

Marcus groaned in pain.

“That’s enough,” Drake said holding up his hand.

Rex’s father nodded, dispelled the reverse shield, and gestured for Soul Knight to stop.

“Dragon’s teeth, I’ve wanted to do that since the day I met the man,” Soul Knight proclaimed, shaking his hand and dispelling the last sparks of lightning. He then reached down and grabbed the limp councilman by the scruff of his neck.

“Take him, and the two the vice champion disabled, to jail. We’ll deal with the others later,” Drake commanded.

Soul Knight tossed Marcus over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and grabbed the two incapacitated men by their ankles. As he hauled them away, Olivia asked, “Who was that man?”

“One of the officials in this city,” Mr. Havanger explained. “He crawled his way to power using backroom deals, bribes, and threats. Eldrin knows I wanted to take care of him months ago, but there was no dark magic involved so it was out of my jurisdiction.”

“I demand to know what in the world is going on!” the overweight, gaudily dressed council member from before barked.

A short councilman dressed in forest green and wearing the signet ring of Glandledale’s bank said, “Yes, indeed. While I am in full agreement with Marcus’s arrest, I believe we deserve to know on whose authority you have given these orders.”

Drake bowed slightly to the man. “Mr.Tarcen, I believe you already know who I am.”

Mr.Tarcen’s face lit in recognition, and his robes rustled as he bowed deeply. “My apologies Sire, I did not recognize you. I pray you don’t take offence at this old man’s inadequacies.”

“None taken. It is a common mistake.” He slowly swept his eyes across the remaining councilmen, willing the magically induced fog and confusion of his identity momentarily away from their minds. One by one, they recognized him, and the people in the plaza stared on in wonder as their councilmen hastily bowed to the young boy.

The fat council member, finally realizing who he had barked at, tried to bow lower than the others only to lose his balance and end up on his face.

Drake ignored the man’s incompetence and motioned for them to stand as he said, “We have much to discuss. But first we should move to a more private location.” The prince turned to Rex’s father. “May we borrow your office?”

Mr. Havanger kicked his chair, causing the shield to shrink down. “Yes, right this way.” He picked up The Energizer, and holding it underneath his arm, led them through the maze of shelters and into the arena. As they made their way towards his office, he glanced worriedly back at Zaphaniea’s prone figure in Olivia’s arms, an expression of fatherly concern briefly crossing his face. He motioned to Rex. “Please take the champion to the infirmary and see that she is administered an Arukah potion.”

Rex nodded and carefully took Zaphaniea from Olivia.

“You and your friends are to take one as well before you sleep,” Mr. Havanger added.

Rex stopped and glanced back at his father. “Are you sure? They’re expensive. And we don’t have that many left.”

“I am. We need our strongest fighters back on their feet as fast as possible.”

Drake blinked in surprise. Mr. Havanger’s blunt statement was correct, but to take such measures…

Arukah potions were exorbitantly expensive, seeing as there was only a finite supply available. The potion restored the consumer’s energy in a brief period of sleep, while providing the body all the necessary resources to repair itself. It also magically quickened the mind and strengthened the body, permanently making its user stronger and smarter. No one knew how they were created because, unlike normal rest potions, they were made thousands of years ago. Current belief held they had small pieces of refined unicorn horn in them. After hearing the maid’s story, Drake was inclined to believe they did. Which meant they were all the more valuable and not to be used lightly.

“Do you honestly believe our situation is that dire?” Mr.Tarcen inquired, his face awash with both interest and worry. His old, weathered hands smoothed over the imaginary wrinkles in his pristine garment.

Drake quickened his pace and curtly answered, “I will explain everything as soon as we are in private.”

The councilman gave a polite smile in understanding, drew back, and fell into silence as they followed Mr. Havanger the rest of the way to his office.


Alf struggled to keep his eyes open as he leaned against the wall and listened to the bureaucrats ceaselessly argue. His eyes trailed around the room. Mr. Havanger’s office was a sparsely decorated, spacious room on the fourth floor of the arena. A giant curved glass wall overlooked the plaza below, and an impressive assortment of exotic weaponry covered the entire wall behind his desk. Rex languidly leaned with his back against one of the weapon cases while Olivia rested in a large brown leather chair in the corner of the room. He smiled as she stifled yet another yawn. Meanwhile, the councilmen sat around Mr. Havanger’s massive oak desk, which Drake currently perched on.

The crown prince had explained the situation—and Vackzilian’s hostile takeover of the Empire—over an hour ago, and since then, they had been debating on the proper course of action. It was taking all of Alf’s willpower to make himself listen to the mind-numbingly boring conversation.

A few of the council members believed a simple camouflage spell would suffice. Others, like Mr.Tarcen, were insistent on more drastic measures. What those measures were exactly, though, was the main topic of debate.

At last, the fat councilman from before launched his body out of the chair, sending it clattering to the floor. “You are forgetting our food! Unless we are able to disguise our fields as well, we will die of starvation!”

The councilman he was yelling at leaned back and priggishly folded his arms. “You seem to have forgotten the blood oath’s massive wall, which is currently obstructing our access to said fields. Or maybe it’s just that your level of observational skills cease beyond your plate.” His eyes rested firmly on the man’s protruding stomach.

Seeing his opportunity to escape, Alf stepped forward. “I believe that’s a problem I can fix.”

All eyes in the room turned towards him and Drake wearily motioned for him to continue.

“With The Energizer’s help, I should be able to either dig a tunnel through or under the wall.”

“That’s excellent news… if you can do it,” Mr.Tarcen stated incredulously. “None of the other earth masters we have set to the task could affect the structure in any way.”

Alf paused. He wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Technically, he wasn’t an earth master, but thanks to his dense muscle mass and strong force of will, he could form spells it would take at least a dozen other earth masters to craft. And with the infinite energy The Energizer provided, that power was greatly enhanced; meaning, he was certain he could do it where others had failed. Still, if he said, ‘My brute strength will punch a hole in that wall,’ to the councilman, it probably wouldn’t go over well.

He sighed in relief as Olivia stood up and came to his aid. “My holy magic is capable of burning through anything. Together, we should be able to do it.”

A satisfied smile spread across the councilman’s elderly face. He slowly pushed away his chair and rose to his feet. “Good. I move that we recess until we have had time to do more research—and these fine warriors have secured our access to the outside world—before we continue this conversation.”

“Agreed,” answered each of the council members one right after the other.

Within a blink of an eye, the council members stood, bowed to Drake, and then vanished like a flock of stampeding ducks through the doorway. Apparently, Alf wasn’t the only one who was desperate to flee the room.

He looked over at Olivia. Her rich brown hair, now streaked with golden highlights, had fallen out of its braid and tumbled down past her shoulders. He couldn’t help but notice that her slender shoulders sagged as she leaned heavily on the chair she had been formerly sitting in, whereas normally her posture looked impeccable thanks to Harold’s strict upbringing. His heart went out to her; she had already pushed herself into unconsciousness once earlier that day. At that moment, her mesmerizing cinnamon gold eyes met his and his heart skipped a beat.

“Ready to go?” she asked.

Alf sincerely wanted to let her get some sleep, but he also longed to spend time with her. His mind scrambled for an answer and he found himself saying, “You sure you’re up for this? You seem tired. You should get some rest. I can handle it.”

She straightened herself and smiled reassuringly at him. “I’m fine, and you look pretty ragged yourself. If I use my magic to vaporize the dirt, all we’ll have to do is shore up the tunnel walls. It shouldn’t be too hard.”

He glanced at his grimy clothes; he did look pretty ragged.

A soft beeping sound pierced the silence, and the magic tattoo ring on Mr. Havanger’s left hand glowed an orangish red. With a flip of his hand, Rex’s father caused a small screen to appear. His face darkened as he read the message. “It seems that the spells in the arena are starting to fail. One of the attacks from that blasted freak must have broken something.”

Rex reached underneath his mask and rubbed his face. “Don’t worry dad. We’re the ones that caused it.”


“We took its power source,” Rex casually answered.

Mr. Havanger flew out of his seat and slammed his hands on the desk. “How could you, my own son, break my arena?!

Drake slid off the desk and brushed the dirt of his trousers. “There is no need for alarm,” the prince told him. “As soon as we put The Energizer back in, it will work fine.”

Rex’s father grabbed The Energizer off his desk and shoved it towards Rex. “Then you had better put it back right now.”

“No,” Drake said. “That would not be prudent at this moment. We need it to dig the tunnels. Furthermore, we will also require its resources in our endeavors to hide the city.”

“Fine,” Mr. Havanger huffed. He pulled The Energizer back and strengthened the shield around it. “But it’s not leaving my sight. Where it goes, I go,” he stated with finality and headed for the door with the machine held firmly in his grasp. From the hall, he glowered back at Alf and Olivia. “We have some tunnels to dig.”

Olivia hid a tiny smile behind her hand and followed the grizzled old man out the door. Alf’s heart sank. So much for getting to spend some time alone with her, he thought as he trudged after them.


The sharp smell of mint mixed with medical herbs reached Alf’s nose, waking him from his deep slumber. He lazily opened his eyes and stretched out. Beyond the curtain, hiding him from the rest of the infirmary, he could hear the voices of healers on the far end of the room. He yawned and stretched again; to his surprise, he felt wonderful. After the fighting yesterday, and the four tunnels he and Olivia had dug, he’d fully excepted to be so sore as to make it painful for him to move.

Huh, it must be the potion’s doing, he thought to himself. He had adamantly argued against taking an Arukah potion, but Mr. Havanger had insisted, saying, “You just helped save the city and everyone in it. We should be throwing your group a big party, but instead we’re all running around like chickens with our heads cut off. This is the least I can do. Heaven above knows you need it, especially if you’re planning on fighting that Vackzilian character. Now, either you take it while you’re still conscious, or I’ll have my mages put it in you intravenously after putting you under.” At that point, Alf had been too tired to resist.

He wiped the sleep from his eyes, pulled back the curtain, and peeked out. This section of the long curved room appeared to be empty, but he could hear someone faintly snoring behind one of the other curtains. Off to the left of his bed, or cot rather, sat a small movable table with a large platter of bacon, eggs, and other assorted food. His stomach growled hungrily. He touched his stomach, smiled, then said a small prayer and picked up the plate.

He wrinkled his nose in distaste.

The bacon was cold.

Setting it back down, he used fire magic to heat it, being careful not to burn the toast. “Ah perfect,” he said as he savored each bite—this sure beat the mush he’d been forced to eat for over twenty years. Alf greedily devoured the now warm food then threw back the bed sheet and jumped to feet.

His borrowed clothes were gone. In their place sat a set of the arena workout clothes made of some type of gray polyester. He donned the uniform, glancing around to make sure no one saw him in a state of indecency. He then looked down at his new outfit clinging tightly to his form. The uniform left nothing to the imagination, clinging to every crevice and muscle. He looked like a cucumber stuffed into a pair of pantyhose. There was no way he was going out in public like this!

He was still endeavoring to make himself look more presentable when Drake strolled into the infirmary. “Ah, good, you’re finally awake. I have something for you; two things to be precise.”

“What’s that?” he asked, consciously pulling away the tight clothes from his lower region.

Drake raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, I know,” Alf answered uncomfortably. “I need to get new clothes as soon as possible.”

Drake formed a small scrying and pushed it towards Alf. “Use this spell. It’ll fix the pants,” the prince said graciously looking away.

Alf learned the spell and used it on the uncomfortable trousers. With the sound of an inflating balloon, the polyester fabric expanded as the frequencies stretched out the material then let it settle back in place, far less tight and slightly warm. “Much better,” Alf said. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” Drake answered as he flipped up his eye patch and scanned the room with his dragon eye. “Seriously, don’t.”

Alf knew quite a few other people had spent the night in the infirmary, Olivia, for one, was on the girls’ side at the other end of the room, but somehow, he suspected Drake was looking for Zaphaniea. “What did you have for me?” he asked interrupting the prince.

Drake flipped his eye patch back down, and a small expression of guilt flashed across his face. “I’ll tell you, but first I have a confession to make.”

It was Alf’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “A confession?”

“Do you remember the piece of paper the town crier gave you?”

Alf’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah?”

Drake coughed delicately. “I took it off you while you were sleeping last night.”

Alf rolled his eyes. Why was he not surprised? “What did you do with it?”

“After we moved the city yesterday, it was discovered that the new heavily forested area it now occupies is rampant with wild mutated monst-”

“Moved the city?!” Alf exclaimed, cutting him off. “Moved as in moved, moved?”

“Ah, I forgot you were asleep this entire time,” Drake formed another scrying, this one depicting a map. “We relocated the entire city and the surrounding fields, switching them with where the meteor actually hit.” He pointed at a sector of the map depicting a large unpopulated jungle. “We are now here, and the meteor’s crater is where the city used to be.”

Alf stared at the scrying in disbelief. The city and the surrounding fields were miles in diameter; to move something that large should be impossible. “How? How is such a thing possible?” his words mimicked his thoughts. “And more importantly, can you do it again?”

Drake shook his head. “Sadly, no, for two reasons: the first being we broke The Energizer when we moved the city, so obtaining the necessary energy for such a feat is now impractical.”

The scene of a raging Mr. Havanger flashed in Alf’s mind. He gulped. “You broke it? I’m surprised Rex’s father didn’t kill you.”

“He almost did,” the uncrowned emperor stated sourly, rubbing a spot on the back of his head. “Fortunately, the coliseum still works. Upon further investigation, we discovered we only broke the remote energy feature on The Energizer. Apparently that part of it worked off of absolute coordinates. When Glandledale moved, its systems fractured. After we realized this, Gerhard, Katerina, Cretan, and I were able to utilize a wire-based connection to hook it directly back into the arena’s power system.”

“Well… that’s good to know.”

“Mr. Havanger is not entirely pleased with the outcome. Nonetheless, it works.” Drake swooshed his hand at the scrying, causing it to display an ancient man garbed in ragged clothing. “This man was Buford Middleton. He is the second reason we are incapable of achieving such a feat again.”

Alf gazed at the man in the scrying. The fellow only had a few wisps of silver hair left floating on his wrinkled head and must’ve been at least ninety.

“Mr. Middleton was the master of the spell which enables the arena to switch between the larger battlefield and the smaller one. Apparently, ever since he succeeded in crafting that particular spell, he had dreamed of moving something larger. In fact, the man spent his entire life endeavoring to do just that. However, he was never able to find anyone willing to believe he could do it, and he lacked the necessary resources on his own. When the gentleman heard we were looking for a way to hide the city, he was ecstatic.” Drake’s eyes lightened in merriment, as if he were recalling the man’s antics. “He quite adamantly demanded that we let him try his-”

A scream rent the air, cutting Drake off. Alf spun in the direction of the cry, preparing for battle.

But instead of a horrific monster, or another of Vackzilian’s minions charging towards them, a large, muscular, chocolate-skinned man, wearing a white muscle shirt, erupted from his sleeping cubicle, ripping down the curtains as he flew off the cot, shrieking like a frightened school girl.

A long-tailed rat escaped from the hurricane of sheets and dashed down the hallway, only to be cut off by a stampede of healers rushing to the frightened man’s rescue.

Drake eyed the commotion incredulously and continued the story as if nothing were happening. “At first, I was against the idea, especially since he refused to let me even examine his spell, but after extensive testing, it was concluded Mr. Middleton’s spell would actually work.”

More screeches erupted from the frightened doctors and nurses as the poor rodent frantically tried to make its escape.

“Cretan’s healers and I did the necessary math to triangulate the exact new coordinates while Mr. Havanger and the city’s guards gathered over five thousand people to help in the casting of the spell.”

A grey streak shot past them with Gerhard hot on its tail. The prince deftly sidestepped closer to Alf, allowing the following pursuers past him.

“It worked perfectly. And at our success, Mr. Middleton burst forth in joyous acclamation: dancing about, whooping, and hollering as if he had just been declared ruler of the world.” A smile reaching all the way to Drake’s eyes spread across his face. “I can honestly say I’ve never seen a man happier in my life.” The prince’s smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. “Sadly, his over abundant excitement caused him to have a heart attack, and he dropped dead on the spot, taking his world-changing spell with him.”

A loud smack resounded in the chamber along with yells of triumph and a fatal squeal.

“You can’t be serious,” Alf exclaimed in total disbelief.

“I am,” Drake answered straight-faced.

Alf laughed, “You’re pulling my leg.”

“I assure you, I’m not.”

Alf stared at him. There was no hint of levity in the prince’s voice. From all appearances, Drake was telling the truth. “So he’s really dead then?” he asked as a sinking feeling flooded his stomach.

“He is,” Drake gazed past him, his eyes glazed as if deep in thought. With a thin voice he said, “The healers tried everything but Buford was gone.”

The man lived his entire life for this, and the day he finally sees his dream succeed, he dies, Alf thought.

Drake must have seen the conflict taking place in his mind because he said, “I’ll tell you this though, if I die even one tenth as happy as he was, I’ll be content.”

Alf gazed down and scuffed the floor with his battle beaten boots. “Even so…,” he trailed off into silence.

“Eww!” one of the healers squeaked. “I thought we had spells to keep this type of vermin out of here.”

Gerhard marched back up their way, holding the deceased rodent by the tail at arm’s length.

Katarina, who followed behind Gerhard, glared at Alf accusingly, “The big lug broke them last night when he dug the tunnels.”

Drake coughed delicately into his hand.”I think it’s best if we relocated.”

“Ah, yes, lets,” Alf agreed.

Katarina crossed her arms and shouted after them as they hastened to the other end of the infirmary. “Yeah, that’s just like a man, running off and not taking responsibility for what he’s done.”

Drake led them to the far corner of the women’s side of the infirmary, which was appealingly devoid of action. “Now, as I was saying before we were so rudely interrupted, the new location where the city has been planted is populated with creatures distorted by magic, much like the giant boars we ran into. Consequently, Mr. Havanger expressed his desire for better equipment. That’s when I remembered the paper Cutler gave you. After some investigation, it was discovered that Marcus, the councilman Soul Knight almost electrocuted to death, is heavily involved in the black market and human trafficking. With this discovery in hand, we paid him a visit in jail.” Alf shivered as a creepy smile affixed itself to the spymaster’s face. “The man was most forthcoming. This, in turn, led to a night raid on the black market’s main warehouse.”

A heavy atmosphere settled in the corner, and while Drake’s expression remained neutral, Alf swore he could see sadness, discomfort, and even anger in his posture. “What did you find?”

“Millions of crypto worth of illegal goods and gear, most of which I had Rex’s father destroy or lock up in the arena’s vault to be dealt with officially later, along with an excellent cache of battle equipment, of which I acquisitioned two million crypto worth.”

Alf knew the prince was leaving something out but was far more interested in what he had said. “Did you say two million? What on Dragon’s Isle did you get?”

“After our encounter with Vackzilian, I concluded lightning may be the death of us.” Drake reached into his pocket and pulled out what look like folded stickers. “Ergo, I obtained these. They are Ka’akahs which nullify thirty percent of lightning damage while making the wearer immune to paralysis and paralyze.”

Drake unfolded the tattoos, giving Alf a clear view. “Which one do you prefer? There is a set of wings, a wolf head, a phoenix, and a fire ice set. There was also an Asian dragon; however, Rex claimed that one.”

Alf leaned closer and examined the wafer-thin constructs. The intricate pieces of art were formed out of pinhead-sized nano-machines interlocking with each other. The tattoos were all impressive, but the one that caught his eye was the bird with its feathered wings stretched out in a circular pattern, trailing fire. “I think the phoenix. It’s kind of a perfect representation of me.”

“Indeed, though its legend of rebirth was proven false untold ages ago,” Drake answered and handed him the ka’akah.

Alf placed the phoenix on his hand and watched it sink into his skin. He eyed it critically; the black swirling outline was eye-catching but it was missing something. He reached out towards it with his mind and changed its color, making it pulsate with streaks of glowing crimson and golden orange. “This is pretty sweet,” he said as he lifted up his hand to look at his new armament.

“Turn it on to see how much energy it consumes.”

He nodded and once again reached out towards it, turning the device on. A small surge of energy flowed from his core, up his arm, and into his hand. At once, he felt a skin-thick barrier rise out of the tattoo and enfold over him. “Not much at all; it’s barely noticeable.”

“Excellent. In that case you should leave it on at all times. The others and I will utilize them only in battle.” Drake spread out the remaining nano-machines and gazed down at them.

“Olivia will want the wings,” Alf said as he decided he didn’t like the Ka’akah on his hand. He lightly touched it with his left index finger and slid it up his arm and onto his shoulder.

“Meaning I have to choose either the wolf head or the fire and ice set?”

“Yeah,” Alf mumbled as he concentrated on resizing the phoenix until it wrapped around his shoulder. He stared at it for a moment, made a few adjustments, and then smiled in satisfaction. Perfect, he thought to himself. Real tattoos had never attracted him; this, however, reminded him of the beautiful face paintings and body art Olivia sometimes did for the children.

He glanced down at Drake to see what he thought of it and pulled back in surprise. The prince had picked up the wolf head and stuck it on his face, lining the wolf’s eyes up with his own, and changed the color to grayish-blue.

Drake smiled at him, bearing his teeth, showing the white fangs of the wolf overlaying his own. “What do you think?”

Alf swallowed. “With the tattoo and your eye patch, you’re the scariest ten year old I’ve ever seen!”

“Good. Half of any battle is won in the mind, and an imposing image is scientifically proven to be an effective method of psychological warfare. In the meantime, though,” Drake closed his eyes and the tattoo faded until it became invisible.

“I will give these to Olivia and Zaphaniea when they wake up,” he said shoving the remaining constructs into his pocket. As his hand reemerged, he withdrew two smooth, metallic objects.

A set of arm cuffs? How in the world did those things fit in his pocket? Alf thought as Drake pushed them towards him and said, “These are for you.”

He took the warrior cuffs from Drake and slid them over his wrist and onto his forearms where they fit snugly. The golden light of the infirmary suffused the plain bronze bracers with a gentle glow. Runes and writing had once been etched into their metallic surface, but time and usage had faded them long ago, leaving them illegible. “What are they for?”

“They serve a dual purpose, the first of which is extra protection. The material they’re fashioned from is intricately weaved into seven different layers. After some adjustments, I was able to make the outermost layer freestanding from the rest while still being locked in place, after which I had Gerhard use the TAG on them. You can now cast a charged shield around the outermost layer without it causing your skin to crack and bleed.”

“Ah, so I’ll be able to have miniature arm shields. That’s useful.” Alf flexed his forearm, stretching the arm cuffs. “You said they serve a dual purpose?”

Drake shifted his weight and an expression Alf could only identify as guilt and shame washed over the prince’s features.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’ll be honest with you. Those cuffs are called Basanizos, which means tormentors, and they were outlawed by my father hundreds of years ago. Nevertheless, they are still the fastest way of learning how to control magical energy.”

“Tormentors?” Alf looked dubiously at the bronze arm cuffs. They seemed harmless enough. “And just why did your father outlaw them?” he asked nervously.

Drake motioned for him to take the bracers off and hand them back. “Because they are one of the worst types of torture someone can endure. You see, this device is designed to magically pinch nerves at the command of the person who puts them on the wearer, and the only way to unpinch the area is to feed magical energy into the afflicted nerve. There are ten settings on the Basanizos. I already tried it on myself at the highest setting and was able to un-pinch all my nerves in less than thirty seconds. For you, however, we will start at the lowest setting.”

Drake slid the warrior cuffs onto his wiry arms. “I will demonstrate how they work first.” The child took a deep breath, then said, “Reshíth.”

The prince’s face contorted in agony and his body turned rigid as he fell to the floor, quivering like he’d just been electrocuted. In alarm, Alf dropped to one knee beside him and reached for the cuffs.

Drake harshly shooed him away and Alf watched, unable to do anything as the small boy curled up into a tight ball. He could hear his friend’s teeth grinding, and he shivered as Drake’s soft moans of agony rent the air. Alf jumped to his feet, preparing to shout for help, when Drake’s pain visibly lessened. His quaking slowly subsided, and his muscles loosened until, roughly thirty seconds later, Drake stood up again, apparently right as rain.

The spymaster took off the cuffs and shoved them at him. “Your turn.”

Alf intrinsically pulled back as he gaped at him. “There’s no way I’m putting those things back on after what they did to you.”

Drake stepped forward, grabbed Alf’s right hand, and shoved the bracer onto it. “Don’t worry, it won’t be anything like what happened to me. The Basanizos were at their highest setting; so they pinched ten separate clusters of my nerves, two of which were in my head. I won’t deny the pain was… ,” Drake paused. “Intense… However, with you we’ll start with just one nerve at a time. The resulting discomfort should be entirely manageable.”

I’m not convinced, Alf thought as he watched the ten year old push the other cuff onto his left arm.

“Are you ready?” Drake asked, making sure both of the bracer’s were secure.

“No, not at all.”

“Good. Reshíth.”

Intense pain blossomed like a burning hot sun in his lower left calf, and an involuntary shout burst from Alf’s lips as he dropped to the ground, grabbing at his leg. He pulled his limb as close to his chest as he could and rocked back and forth, trying to lessen the unimaginable torment.

Drake placed his hand on his shoulder and calmly said, “You should now be acutely aware of your energy. I imagine it will appear to you as a floating body of water around your core. You need to guide it, or some of it, to where the pain is originating from.”

Alf startled in surprise. Drake was correct; he could see the giant blue ocean of energy floating around by his abdomen. In desperation, he mentally grabbed on to it and tried to push the entire sea down into his leg. But it wouldn’t move. He ground his teeth and pushed against it with all his willpower. Gradually, the mass followed his command, flowing down to his left side. As it did, though, he ever so slightly relaxed his mental grip. Like a metal spring stretched to its limit, his energy yanked away from his grasp and shot back around his core.

The pain seemed to intensify, and he clawed at the bracers, trying to pull them off, but they wouldn’t budge.

“They cannot be removed until the exercise is complete,” Drake stated. “Try again. This time, only shift a portion of your energy.”

Alf didn’t want to try again—the back of his head felt like it was about to explode from his first attempt. But the endlessly burning fire in his leg was far, far worse. Once more, he took a hold of his energy, and as Drake had instructed, tried to pull a small segment of it away from the rest, but no matter what he did, it just flowed through his grip. In frustration, he steeled himself and seized the whole thing again. Then, with every ounce of his mental power, he drove it down into his leg.

Inch by painful inch, Alf shoved the recalcitrant energy towards his foreleg. The endless struggle felt like an eternity: the pain equivalent to an erupting volcano held within his skin, driving him forward. By the time the energy reached his thigh, more than half had slipped through his grasp. He swallowed his rising sense of terror and pushed harder. He had to get it there before it was all gone.

Finally, he reached his calf. All that was left of the massive ocean was a tiny thimbleful. Please be enough, he prayed.

It was.

Blessed relief washed over him as the energy engulfed the pinched nerves, shattering the spell the cuffs had cast.

“Sixteen minutes and forty-eight seconds,” Drake informed him.

Alf sprawled out and closed his eyes. That was worse than the time he had broken three fingers and his arm pushing Olivia on a swing ten years ago. “Did you really do ten of those?” he asked in disbelief, not wanting to think about the level of torment two clusters of pinched nerves would cause, much less ten.

“I did.” Drake clasped his hands behind his back. “In less than thirty seconds, as well. I could have done it even faster with a larger magic pool. Currently, I have to shift all of my energy to un-pinch one group of nerves. If I had more, I could easily do them all at once.”

Alf rolled to his side and rubbed at the back of his head. “Man, I didn’t realize how bad my control over magic was until just now.”

“It is deplorable,” Drake agreed. “In the olden days, before my father outlawed the use of Basanizos, or tormentors as they’re often called, an instructor would put them on his student and continuously activate it until the pupil could do level ten in five minutes.”

A shiver of terror ran up Alf’s spine. He closed his eyes and sucked in a sharp breath. “No wonder your father outlawed them.”

“Truth be told, Alf, I should do the same to you, but doing so would leave you in a horrible mental state for some time. Fortunately for you, such damage to your psychology would not be advantageous for either of us right now. Instead, you will do it once promptly at the top of every hour.”

“If it really took him sixteen minutes, you should have him do it again until he gets the hang of it. Otherwise, that’s really going to cut into our travel time,” a female voice towards the ceiling said.

Another shiver ran down Alf’s spine at the thought of having to do that again. He opened his eyes and looked up towards the offending voice. Zaphaniea floated lazily above him, reposing on a couch made of her spheres. “You’re awake?” he asked in surprise.

She slid off her spheres to the floor and yawned. “Yeah, well it’s kinda hard to sleep when a two hundred pound man is flopping around on the floor.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Alf answered, subconsciously rubbing his fingers across the bracer on his left arm. He hadn’t meant to make so much noise. But then again, he also hadn’t wanted to be flopping around on the floor, either.

“Is everyone already up?” Olivia’s voice called from behind one of the curtains. “What was all that racket?”

Drake quickly interposed himself between the voice and Alf’s prone form. “I am helping Alf refine his magic control,” he called out.

Zaphaniea snorted and blithely whispered, “Remind me to never ask you for help.”

Drake pointedly ignored her comment and frantically motioned for Alf to stand up.

Alf crawled to his knees and stumbled to his feet. As he did, though, he noticed a slight hint of fear in Drake’s eyes. He’s right to be afraid, a part of him realized. He winced at the thought of what Olivia might do to Drake if she had seen him flopping about. Thank God Almighty she’s a heavy sleeper.

Olivia emerged from behind her curtain with a perplexed look on her face. Drake stepped forward and pulled the two magic tattoos from his pocket, masterfully changing the subject. Alf drifted away in thought, thinking about the many times Olivia had been overly protective of him; in fact, she and Harold had always been so for as far as back as he could remember. He still remembered the day they had gone for a short walk through the village. They had just passed in front of Cleaver’s butcher shop when a large boar came rushing into the street, angry squeals and glinting tusks shining in the morning light. With a stomp of its hooves and swoosh of it short tail, it charged them. Olivia had immediately stepped in front of Alf and blown off its front feet with a fire spell. The Brokovichs had eaten roasted pig that night, and he had eaten humble pie. Alf had never forgot the feeling of humiliation he had when she protected him with her own body. It should’ve been him protecting her, not her protecting him.

Olivia took the winged tattoo set, an expression of childish glee dancing across her features as she turned the wings into a silvery-white color.

Many times Alf had tried to explain away his ungrateful feelings, but no matter how many excuses he came up with, deep down he knew the truth. It was because there was nothing worse than being helpless in front of the woman you loved. All his life, he’d desired to be her staunch protector‒her knight in shining armor. Instead, he’d been the weak little boy who had suffered from being mentally challenged and slow of wit and mind, all because of his lack of energy.

Olivia played with the positioning of the tattoos: first placing them on her shoulders, then the back of her hands, and eventually placing them on either side of her eyes.

Pain stabbed his heart. He now had what he had wished for, but things weren’t at all as he’d imagined. Olivia barely spoke to him anymore, wherein before they had spent hours talking as she took her time healing his every day bumps and bruises. A part of him longed for those olden days; even though, at the time, he’d despised his own weakness.

“What do you think?” Zaphaniea said, interrupting his thoughts and pushing her hands in his face.

The grand champion had taken the fire and ice set and put them on her palms then turned the glow and spectacular options up as high as they would go, making it appear like her left hand was covered in ice and her right in fire.

He stared blankly at them for a moment then managed to say, “Nice.”

Zaphaniea frowned at him. “That’s all, just nice? I was thinking more along the lines of epic!” she exclaimed posing in the classic comic book fighting stance.

Olivia let out a soft laugh and threw a dazzling smile at him. “What do you think of mine?”

Alf’s heart pitter-pattered. She was stunning. The new wings accented her eyes perfectly. “Bewitchingly angelic,” his mouth said before he could even think about his answer.

Olivia’s cheeks flushed red, and at that moment, a young man in layered black leather armor, and sporting a multicolored scaled Asian Dragon on his right arm, waltzed up to them. “Ah, I see everyone’s showing off. In that case, what do you think of mine?” he said flexing his magically tattooed forearm.

Zaphaniea tossed her hair behind her shoulder. “It’s nice. But not anywhere near as amazing as mine,” she boasted, throwing out her hands as if she were going to cast some powerful magic spell.

“Hey, you’re the one that told us why the Emperor doesn’t own the arena. How do you know Zaphaniea?” Olivia asked.

Drake’s expression lit in understanding. “That’s why I failed to see you approach. I knew my eyes didn’t play a trick on me; you were just too fast for them to see.”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” the young man said, running his hand through his ear length brown hair.

“Wait, are you Rex?” Alf asked.

Rex laughed, “Of course I am, who else would I be?”

“But your voice sounds different,” he interjected.

“That’s because my mask had a voice altering machine in it.”

“Duh,” Alf lamely muttered to himself. He had seen the young man’s face and heard his voice last night without the mask at least twice, but somehow he had never realized it. Then again, by that time he had been running on fumes for hours. “So where is your armor?” he asked, looking past the vice champion as if his armor were going to walk out on its own.

“It’s shot. My father and Soul Knight had to literally cut it off me to get me out. That and… ” Rex pulled out his sword and held it out in front of him. He concentrated on it for a moment, and purple flames erupted from its blade.

“Ho, ho, it looks like the clipped chicken finally achieved Patuah,” Zaphaniea mocked.

Rex’s hazel eyes sparkled. “I did. Which means I don’t have to hide my identity anymore.” He grinned smugly and made a sweeping motion with his hand down the length of his body. “Now the ladies will be screaming my name when they see how amazingly handsome I am.” His white teeth flashed wolfishly. “Not only that, I’ll be claiming the title of grand champion from you very soon,” he proclaimed, menacingly swooshing his sword through the air.

“Ha, only in your dreams lover boy. Only in your dreams.”

“Oh we will see,” he smiled teasingly. “In a week’s time, your visions and invisible balls, or spheres, or whatever you call them, won’t be a match for me.”

“A week’s time huh?” Zaphaniea bantered. “More like twenty years.”

“Like I said, we’ll see,” Rex sheathed his weapon and patted the hilt of his sword, his posture laid back and brimming with confidence. Before Zaphaniea could answer, he pivoted towards Alf. “My father wants to see you when you’re ready. He has a few things for you.”

“I’m ready, but I don’t think Olivia or Zaphaniea has had any breakfast yet.”

Rex nodded. “I think Katerina was getting them something,” he said, motioning for them to follow him.

As they neared the other end of the infirmary, the shortest of the maids came into view. Her shoulders hunched forward in agitation; her arms swung about maniacally, and her brown hair swooshed back and forth like an agitated pendulum. From the looks of it, she was in a heated argument with Gerhard. “How could you kill Hamilton?! He was in the prime of his life!” she cried.

“It was a rat, and it was in my infirmary. I don’t care if you named it or not; it’s dead and that’s that.”

The girl froze and stared blankly at Gerhard as if she couldn’t comprehend such a level of heartlessness.

An uncomfortable silence passed between the two of them until the silver-haired maid, along with her other counterpart, pushed their way through the onlooking healers and patients. She walked to her companion’s side and wrapped her arm around the girl’s shoulder. The young maid glanced back, tears gathering in her eyes and her lower lip trembling. Their eyes met, one with irises the color of freshly bloomed violets and the other of newly turned earth. It seemed to Alf as if they were communicating with each other, though no words were spoken.

After a moment, the small brunette collapsed into her friend’s open arms, buried her face into her bosom, and started to sob hysterically.

Alf’s heart went out to her. He wanted say something comforting, but he also felt a twinge of guilt seeing as he had completely forgotten about the three ladies.

“It was just a rat,” Cretan muttered from across the room.

The silver-haired leader turned her blazing eyes on him, and he shrank away like a cowering mouse hiding in the corner.

Her red haired companion slammed her hands on her hips and exclaimed, “Weren’t you supposed to be in jail for fraud or something?”

With this comment hanging in the air, Drake stepped forward. “There are far too many injured for a healer of his caliber to be locked away right now. Instead, he is working for free until he pays off the money he stole.”

Both of their scathing gazes fixated on him.

The prince reached into his pocket and drew out a large, stuffed, purple hippopotamus with a leather pouch in its mouth, which, Alf noted, was much too large to have fit in his pants. Wait, he thought. Isn’t that the hippo I kicked earlier. How come Drake has it? The prince held it out towards them as he softly said, “Maybe this will help lessen the blow of your loss.”

Large brown eyes peeked at him as the maid cautiously peered over her protector’s slender shoulder, her muted sniffles echoing through the room. Drake unstrung the leather bindings holding the hippopotamus’s mouth in place and slowly opened the pouch, tipping it forward so she could see the contents. Upon seeing the hidden treasure, it was as if the stormy clouds hanging over her features were suddenly pierced through by a bright light, and the tears magically disappeared.

“They are of the best quality I could find. I guarantee you’ve never had better,” Drake stated proudly.

She snatched the hippopotamus with the pouch from his fingers, the dead rat suddenly forgotten, and cradling the plushy animal in her arms, she dashed out of the infirmary with the red-haired maid hot on her tail.

“You’ve really got to stop adopting random animals, you know,” Alf heard the redhead mutter softly as they disappeared from view.

The leader of the trio politely curtsied to Drake. “Thank you,” she stated then elegantly rushed after them.

“What in the world just happened? And what in Eldrin’s name did you give them?” Rex exclaimed as he stared at the empty doorway.

An impish grin played at the corner at Drake’s mouth. “Sugar cubes.”

Olivia gasped in horror, bringing her hand up to her mouth, “That’s a horrible gift. Sugar is one of the worst things for you!”

“I never knew they liked sugar,” Alf mused out loud. I guess that explains why there’s never any left for tea, he thought. And here I thought Olivia and Harold were purposely disposing of the sugar so I’d be forced to use honey instead.

Katerina appeared in the doorway, carrying a silver platter with two bowls. “Ah, you two are awake. I thought you’d be up soon, so I brought you breakfast.”

Alf stepped forward and accepted the tray from her. “Thank you.” He glanced at the bowls. They were full of some type of grayish-porridge or oatmeal. His stomach turned, and he fought down his own revulsion at the sight of the gelatinous mush. He had eaten its ilk all his life, and to this day, he still had nightmares where giant bowls of porridge chased him down the corridors yelling ‘Eat me, eat me; I’m good for you.’ With a shudder, he swung around and offered it to Olivia.

“My thanks,” she said taking one of the dishes and the small packet of honey lying beside it.

Zaphaniea flourished her hand. Five miniature spheres surrounded the other bowl, lifted it off the platter, and whisked it to her. “Steel cut oats?”

Katarina nodded.

Zaphaniea frowned at the flavorless goop, picked up the spoon, and unceremoniously stabbed into it. “I guess it’s food,” the grand champion complained as she unhappily took a bite. Alf felt a twinge of guilt. He couldn’t help but wonder why he had received a proper breakfast when they hadn’t.

“Do you mind eating as we move?” Drake asked. “I recalibrated your magic after we relocated the city, and it would set me at ease if you would examine my modifications to make certain they are correct. I would also like to head out within the hour. It’s imperative we get the other teleportation stones closed as soon as possible.”

“Relocated the city?” Olivia gasped, almost dropping her porridge.

“I’ll explain later. Zaphaniea?”

Zaphaniea’s nose crinkled in distaste as she munched another bite of her breakfast. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

“I’ll take you guys there,” Rex offered enthusiastically.

“Wait,” Alf said then handed the platter back to Katarina and mentally chose to follow Rex. “Okay, I’m ready now.”

Rex glanced at the others, raising his eyebrows in question. Olivia nodded, signaling she was good, and Zaphaniea shrugged.

As Rex took off, and the group zipped down the corridors, Alf heard Zaphaniea mutter in the wind, “You’d think they’d throw a feast or something in my honor after I saved the city but no, all I get is peasants’ food.”

Brilliant sunlight splashed over the group as they emerged from the coliseum, and Alf closed his sensitive eyes. Warm tropical air pelted his face, carrying the still lingering scent of fire, mixed with the sweet smell of the orchards from beyond the city walls. The sound of voices echoed in the air, accompanied by the rumble and clanging of earth magic. By the time Alf peeled his eyes open again, they had already come to a halt on the far left side of the arena’s plaza where the teleportation stone now sat.

“You moved the stone?” Alf asked.

“Ya. My pop wanted it where we could keep an eye on it,” Rex explained, pointing at a nasty array of turrets on top of the arena aimed directly down at the stone.

Alf had seen automated defenses before but nothing like the array now perched on top of the coliseum. Someone must’ve gone through the entire city and requisitioned every single turret. Their diversity ranged all the way from the machine-based tripod, to the freestanding magically powered crystal spires. There was even one with a swiveling mechanical pedestal and a giant loadstone on top. Alf didn’t have a clue how half of them worked, but one thing was for certain, he wouldn’t want to be the one trying to come through this teleportation stone.

“Here, hold that,” Zaphaniea said shoving her bowl of porridge into Rex’s hands.

As the grand champion examined the two spheres hovering above the teleportation stone, Alf let his eyes wander. All the makeshift shelters from the other day had been removed, the ground repaved, and the sun now shone brightly off its polished … With alarm, he realized the sun was in the wrong position. Somehow, it was farther to the east than when they had gone to sleep. “Wait! How long was I asleep?”

“You and Olivia slept a little over twenty hours,” Drake answered matter-of-factly.

“What?” Alf blurted. His mind screamed and Vackzilian’s smirking face appeared in his imagination, shortly followed by the images of another city burning. “Why did you let us sleep that long? Who knows how many lives Vackzilian has destroyed while we were out.”

“We didn’t really have a choice,” Rex explained. “Thanks to The Energizer’s help, you two pushed your bodies so far the only way to fix you was with a major operation or letting your bodies fix themselves. My dad opted for the latter.”

“Oh,” Alf muttered.

Olivia held up her hand and slowly rotated it in front of her face. As she examined her skin, she said, “I hadn’t realized I’d pushed myself that far. I guess it’s a good thing we took those potions.”

“Yep. Don’t feel too bad though; I slept for almost thirteen hours.”

Drake watched closely as Zaphaniea made minute changes to the spheres. “I am ashamed to say that I personally slept only a few hours myself. In fact, I woke up a brief fifteen minutes after you two collapsed,” he said.

“Ha! I have you all beat. I slept for over twenty six hours,” Zaphaniea happily proclaimed.

None of them answered. Alf knew the champion had almost sacrificed herself to save the city. If truth be told, it was a miracle she was even alive.

“That should be good. You had it aimed directly in the middle of the crater, but that was too artificial so I moved it a little to the right.”

“There you are,” a gruff voice said from behind them. “Gerhard said you had headed this way.”

Alf spun around to see Mr. Havanger lumbering their direction. Alf noticed at once the older gentleman’s shoulders were slumped forward, and his eyes sported large bags underneath them.

“Have you slept at all?” Olivia asked as he came to a halt.

Rex’s father waved his hand dismissively. “Too much to do for that.” He motioned at one of the men trailing behind him. “I had this fixed while you slept,” he said as the man handed him Alf’s medallion. “Cretan, and another one of those nerdy fellows, insisted the only way to properly fix it was by installing something called a cerebral cortex mapper? Or some such nonsense. Anyway, the buttons no longer work; instead, you have to mentally tell it to open.”

“Thanks, I hadn’t realized it was gone,” Alf said taking the medallion back. The small metal disk weighed heavily in his hands, once again loaded with supplies. Experimentally, he told it to open with his mind, and like a flower blooming, its metal hinges unfurled, spiraling outwards to reveal a wide opening to the magical storage container hidden within.

“I had it restocked with supplies and some hearty food.” Mr. Havanger eyed his inappropriately too tight garments. “I imagine you’ll also be happy to know that a tailor made you a set of clothes. They’re in there as well.”

Alf blushed in embarrassment and mumbled his appreciation as he buried his head inside the medallion, eagerly looking for his newly prepared clothing.

“How goes what I asked you to attend to?” Drake asked.

Mr. Havanger sighed heavily and wiped his hand across his face. Grime still covered his clothes from the day before, and his large frame sagged in exhaustion. “Getting people to cooperate has proven… difficult. I’ve had to threaten bodily harm to a few of them.”

Drake nodded in understanding. “I thought that might be a problem,” the prince said and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a rectangular black plate with his right hand, and using his left, drew glowing blue runes in the air. Hanging between the earth and sky, the intricate symbols momentarily danced then vanished with a flash.

With a shuddering yawn, the land itself responded to Drake’s magic: the air wavered, the busy sounds of the plaza faded way, and the earth under their feet hummed as if a giant beast were purring deep beneath them. Visible trails of sparking energy streamed from the ground and struck the plate, sinking into its obsidian depths. The prince released the now vibrating piece of metal, and it floated in the air, twisting and bending until its shape took on the Imperial insignia. “With this, I intend to make you my personal vassal. Do you accept?”

Completely abandoning his hunt for his wardrobe, Alf watched the older man, expecting him to be ecstatic at such an honor. Drake was essentially offering him one of the highest positions in his court. Only a High Lord, or Drake himself, would have more authority. However, Mr. Havanger just sighed, “I was afraid you were going to do this. You do realize I was supposed to retire yesterday don’t you?”

“I was aware.”

“So much for the good life,” Mr. Havanger complained.

“Do you accept?”

“With the likes of Vackzilian in power, I don’t have much of a choice. But,” Rex’s father reached out and wrapped his hand around the floating insignia, “how about this instead.” He removed his hand and the crest reappeared, reformed into the emblem General Turik had once worn.

“I see… this position does suit your personality better, as well as still providing you with the necessary authority. Are you certain this is what you want?”

“No, I’d rather retire,” the old man prickly stated.

A lopsided smile appeared on the prince’s face, and he motioned for Mr. Havanger to kneel.

The Arena Master leaned down on one knee, the toll of the last few days evident in his sluggish movements. His weight shifted precariously to the side, and the man previously carrying Alf’s medallion reached out to help.”I’m not that old yet!” Mr. Havanger growled and shoved him aside.

He regained his balance and finished kneeling. “Alright, crown me and let’s get this over with so I can get back to work.”

Ignoring his cantankerous comment, Drake grabbed a hold of the floating crest then gently pressed it against Mr. Havanger’s right shoulder. The general’s energy hissed and sparked, suffusing itself into the emblem; then the symbol of authority burned into the cloth, as if it were a magic tattoo, and glowed softly against the gray fabric. “You are now my general and carry with you the full authority of the house of Docdovinun. Serve us well.”

“I will. On that you have my word,” Mr. Havanger answered, finally serious.

“Arise General Havanger and may the enemy quake in your presence.”

The newly appointed general stood up and bowed deeply to the prince, his hand clasped ceremoniously to the hilt of his sword. “Thank you Sire.”

Drake wordlessly returned the bow.

Ceremony now complete, the general rolled his shoulders, trying to relieve some of the tension. “Now that we have the un-pleasantries out of the way, I’d like to give something to Alf.” He reached into his vestment and produced a black, leather book. “If I may.”

Drake eyed the object in question for a moment then nodded.

“What is it?” Alf asked in anticipation as Mr. Havanger held out the object to him.

“It’s a magic book of sorts.”

Alf flipped it open to the first page and ravenously learned the first spell. He had hoped an amazing script would unfurl in his mind; to his bewilderment, though, all it turned out to be was a remote self-destruct spell for the book. He flipped to the next page. Rather than another spell, he was greeted with an arrangement of complex formulas.

“Spell modifications?” Olivia asked, reading over his shoulder.

“Yes, every spell in that book is a variation of the shield spell.”

“So this’ll help me do the same amazing stuff you do with shields?” Alf said, his voice brimming with excitement as he flipped through the pages, only to see more intricate equations and formulas. “But…why aren’t they in learnable form?”

Drake answered for Mr. Havanger. “Such abilities are not only extremely valuable, they are also unprecedentedly dangerous. We couldn’t take the risk of someone getting their hands on it and learning its secrets. The way it is right now, it would take them at least two or three days to learn the information contained in its pages, by which time the curator would have noticed its absence and activated the self-destruct spell.”

“I see,” Alf answered, his enthusiasm draining away. Despite the value of what he was holding, he hadn’t a clue of what to do with it.

Seeing his downcast expression, Mr. Havanger slapped him on the back. “I suggest you start on page seven. It’s the hole in the shield technique. Quite useful.”

Alf flipped back to page seven and stared blankly at the swirling patterns.

“Here, let me help you,” Olivia said taking the book.


As the group huddled around the leather-bound tome, Drake walked to the General’s side. He would examine the spells later, now, however, he needed to address a different matter. Tapping Mr. Havanger on the arm, he led him a short distance away. He had noticed earlier there was something off about the older gentleman: a haunted look plagued his eyes; his fingers spasmodically twitched every now and again, and the cast of his shoulders spoke of a great burden beyond that of currently being promoted to general. “What’s wrong? There is more than fatigue in your eyes.”

Mr. Havanger stepped away, inhaled deeply, and with a shuddering breath said, “Soul Knight was critically injured moments ago.”

Dread coursed through his veins. If Soul Knight had been injured, it meant there was a spy in their midst. How else could such a strong warrior have been wounded. “Who was the traitor? And did he get a message off?”

“No traitor,” he said waving his hand dismissively. “It was the blasted creatures.”

Drake’s shoulder’s relaxed; his worst fears hadn’t been realized. Still, this was most troublesome. “I thought the equipment we procured last night solved this issue.”

“Equipment doesn’t make the man, and my men were already pushed past the point of exhaustion when a jaguar the size of a mountain fell on them.”

“How bad is it?”

“He’ll survive,” the general answered gruffly. “But now that my forces are spread dangerously thin, it’s all I can do to protect the tunnels. If one of those things gets inside… ”

The shrill cry of children’s laughter filled the air as a group of adolescents darted past them playing tag. They weaved through the scaffolding, supporting the earth users fixing the arena, and into the bedlam of civilians milling around the coliseum. Drake’s eyes trailed over to his group. Unbeknownst to the others, the three maids sat behind them shrouded in invisibility, happily munching on his gift, while Alf and Olivia buried their noses in the spell book. Zaphaniea stood beside them, seemingly engrossed in learning the new spells as well, but Drake could tell she was carefully watching Rex, who had produced a spray paint bottle and was trying to squirt one of her spheres lime green so he could see it.

They’re just like the children, Drake thought with an internal smile. “I understand. What do you need?”

Mr. Havanger looked him straight in his eyes. “I want you, and the others to stay.”

Drake’s muscles tightened, and his fists clenched as he struggled not to lose his temper. You mean you want me out of harm’s way, he thought. It was so typical; all his life, he had been treated as a child, and while it was only natural for his uncle to be protective, Drake had had enough of being pampered and pushed to the shadows. “No,” he stated firmly, his words tinged with fire. “I will not stand idly by while Vackzilian lays waste to my citizens.”

Mr. Havanger’s rugged face hardened and he dropped all pretense. “I know you’re fully capable of taking care of yourself Sire, and I am in no way insinuating you need protection, but by Eldrin’s fangs boy, this is serious. Vackzilian’s freaks are far too powerful for you to go gallivanting off across the countryside.”

“That may be so, but my duty is to my people, and I will protect them. Even if it means putting myself in harm’s way. There will be no more discussion on this subject. Period. Is that understood?” Drake declared, his anger flaring as he glared back into the wise old man’s eyes.

Mr. Havanger blinked, nodded, and fell into silence.

“Good. Now what do you need to secure the city?”

“You got paint in my hair!” Zaphaniea shouted as she smashed one of her spheres into Rex, sending him sliding across the plaza.

“I need my son.”

Drake raised an eyebrow.

“You can’t hide them from me forever,” Rex retorted, springing to his feet.

“Oh I won’t! If you get paint on me again, you’re going to know them real well!”

“I know his speed is invaluable to you, but I need it, and his strength,” Mr. Havanger said, motioning for some of his new recruits to get out of the line of fire between the two squabbling champions. “At least until I have some of the rabble here trained enough.”

Drake crossed his arms and closed his eyes, contemplating the situation. On one hand, Rex’s speed would cut their travel time in half; on the other hand, it would enable him to protect the city. There had already been one case of mole-like creatures popping up in Alf’s tunnels. With Mr. Havanger’s forces spread so thin, Rex’s response time was invaluable. “Understood,” he answered. “How long until you can send him to catch up?”

“Shouldn’t be more than two days tops. Especially if I can capture a few of these beasts and introduce them to my arena,” Mr. Havanger said with a sparkle in his eye.

He certainly does loves his arena, Drake thought. “Excellent, I’ll leave Imperial hunter markings behind for him to follow.”

“Thank you,” the General said and turned to his son. “Rex, would you come over here please.”

“Ha ha, your daddy’s going to spank you for getting paint in my hair,” Zaphaniea taunted.

Rex rolled his eyes then dashed over. As he skipped to a halt in front of them, he said, “I didn’t really get paint in her hair Dad. She just said I did to have a reason to hit me.”

Mr. Havanger smiled. “I know son, but that’s not what this is about. About fifteen minutes ago, one of those dratted beasts got his claws into Soul Knight, tore him open from stem to stern it did,” the Arena Master said, motioning from his upper chest to his lower abdomen.

The vice champion’s face paled. “He’s not dead is he?”

“No, but it will be some time before he is back on his feet, and with the rest of my men already exhausted, I need someone I can count on.”

“Oh.” All the earlier joy in Rex’s youthful features faded away.

“I know you were looking forward to going with them, but I need you here. It will onl-”

“I understand Dad.”

Drake turned away from the father and son and marched back towards Alf and the others. “Let’s move out,” he called to them.

“What about Rex?” Alf asked handing the book to Olivia.

“Mr. Havanger needs him. He will catch up in a few days.”

“Ah did the little boy get grounded?” the grand champion shouted.

“No. I’m the only one strong enough to keep the city safe. So while you go gallivanting across the countryside, I’ll be protecting your dead little fishies,” Rex retorted and disappeared, kicking up dirt in his wake.

Zaphaniea’s face soured and she crossed her arms. “O ya? Well they wouldn’t be dead if someone had secured their house properly.” She flopped back into a seat made of her spheres and mumbled. “Stupid clam shell.”

Alf nervously looked down at his sword hilt, not wanting to draw her ire, and asked, “Is every one following me?”

Drake stepped in place behind him and said, “Yes, and the maids are as well.”

“Alright, let’s go,” the High Lord declared and started running towards the eastern tunnel.

As Drake magically followed along via Travers Wake, his eyes drifted over top of the city and up at the blood oath’s walls. Vackzilian had claimed his kingdom only a few days ago, but already he and his minions had wreaked havoc on his empire. He had killed a High Lord, laid waste to his land, and destroyed at least one town. If it hadn’t been for the miraculous events a day and a half ago, Glandledale would have been added to the list as well. But worst of all, the usurper had murdered his father in cold blood.

The prince closed his eyes and breathed deeply, pushing down his grief and anger. He would put an end to this madman’s reign, but first things first: they would close the teleportation stones—stopping Vackzilian’s plans in their tracks whatever they may be; then he would raise an army, box the villain in, and draw him out into an open fight, where he would personally see to Vackzilian’s assassination. Electricity crackled on the tips of his fingers, and he flickered in and out of view as he mentally examined his half-finished death spell laced with dark magic.

Vackzilian would not escape him.

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