“I tried, Dasha – but he’s just… it’s not him anymore.”
“Of course it is. He has forgotten. You heard the King.”
“I did. And.. I do not mean to question, but.. The enchantment, whatever it is? It has him. Wholly. We don’t even know where to begin to look to break it – Klounni hasn’t even found the first sign of it. It’s subtle, it’s pervasive..”
“But not impossible.”
“Perhaps it is. For us, at least – but I know if I could get him alone..”
“The others that surround him would tear you apart before granting you the opportunity.” The ranger’s mouth quirked down. A frown, of sorts. “That would not be productive.”
“No risk, no reward.”
“Appropriate risks. I would not like to see you lost. The mission would be far, far more difficult.”
Maya rolled her eyes. “You can find another me -”
Dasha interrupted – “No. Enough. You will not seek him out. You have other work to do.”
“Fine. Of course. As you say..” Maya grumped, “I’m going back to my quarters. I want to finish that book.” Without bothering to wait for whatever monotone answer the ranger would come up with, she turned, stomping off down the echoing corridors.
The Shaded Castle wasn’t exactly what she or anyone else considered ‘homey’. It was serviceable, it kept the warm in if you kept the fire burning, and the servants and guards were attentive, if not great conversationalists, being mostly ghosts of shadow and half-formed memories. Maya reflected, and not for the first time, that they needed to recruit more of the living, if only to make the place feel a little less… sepulchral.
It had gotten better after the raid on the Centaurs – one of the main outbuildings was now given over to those that had chosen to come with them rather than make their way back to the Reach, and Maya found more of her time being spent there than anywhere else. There was a comfort in couples, in children, in friends among the living – in the sound of a forge and the laughter and conversation of those with something other than memories to work with. It reminded her of what would be, rather than what was, and that wasn’t a bad thing at all.
But.. her rooms were well-established, in the Castle proper, and one didn’t go against the edict of the King, even when it was as simple as where you were expected to sleep when you were healing. His kindness was boundless, but so was his anger – and she’d experienced the latter enough, thank you very much.
The real trouble was that her path back to her quarters took her past his rooms. The Commander. The War Room, the library – his drawing room. She paused there, looking into the disused War Room and its tables, still strewn with the papers and models that represented the campaign he was working on, the training lists – the plans. Maya rested a hand on the doorframe, feeling the strange cold of the castle’s stone against her fingers.
It was so easy when the Commander was here. The troops were stirred out of their memories, there was laughter. It felt like there was hope – so many nights spent with her sister Hands planning what would happen, working through details… and now? Ashes. Lost.
Maya frowned. Considered. She remembered that first shield – the one with the winged Sera-
Her eyes flickered black.
-Eagle. She wondered then whether he took it with him when they stole him.
“The left flank is crumbling.” His voice was measured, even touched with humor. “Send in the third phalanx – here. Here.” A mailed finger tapped the map of the battle – as the shadowed army took on the bright, glowing forces of the strange forest. “Take your rangers in for the orb – I think they’re well distracted, don’t you, Dasha?”
“I do. It will be done, Commander.”
“Sir!” Maya straightened, holstered her pistol.
“See if you can find a path behind their lines – take down that shining fellow with the plume on his helm among the cavalry. I think without him, the right can’t-”
The crashing of wood and ripping of canvas interrupted everything, as a group of shining, wild beasts, accompanied by strange, small elementals of stone rampaged in to the rear of the command company. Roaring, snarling, the clash of stone. All was chaos – and Maya pulled blade and dagger to fight for her life, in that moment. “Commander!”
There was a flash of blue-and-shadow; the area around them cleared with the force of it. He shone, raising his own sword. “To me! Rally! Push them back and take their hides!”
The Command Guard formed up – literally – swirling shadows coalescing into the towering forms of the elite shades that stormed forth, joining battle against the light-made spirits and their elemental guardians. Maya found herself laughing as she put grapeshot into an elemental, watching as rock-chips flew and the magic holding it together disrupted. A flicker, and she was forty yards away, engaging a great bear – slipping away from its claws.
It was glorious.
They were winning.
And then came the hole – a hole in the very Realm around them. Confused voices, calls – hands, a half dozen different hands – grabbed at her Commander, within his shining shield. “Commander!” She called – she focused – an effort of will had her at his side. She clung – “Help me!” She called to two of the shades. They came, they tried.
He slipped from their grasp, pulled through the portal.. and was gone.
Truly gone – in so many ways.
She remembered the battle of the Centaur, thought about the moment she’d greeted him – and the utter lack of recognition in his eyes. How powerful was this magic? How could they fight it?
It was this thought that haunted her. The King’s forces could kill all of the Charr, level the Black Citadel, even kill the Usurper Queen – and none of it would matter of the magic held. And Dasha, the King – neither seemed to worry about that. Oh no, to their mind, it would be fine once they managed the grand plan – it would all sort itself out. But Maya knew – it was dangerous.
After all, they took the Commander. Who among them could possibly be safe? The magic…
… she found herself wiping at her eyes, wisps of shadow curling around her own tears, there on the back of her hand. Maya looked at them, startled, knowing, in that moment, she wasn’t sad – was she? Of course not. It was just a mission. They’d find a way. They had all the time in the world.
Soon, they’d have even more than that.