Gabriella felt something cool and damp run across her forehead, followed by a lingering astringent smell. Her head throbbed. She opened her eyes, but saw nothing more than a blur. She blinked until she began to see clearly. She was lying on a bed in a wood-paneled room, and a soldier wearing the bronze breastplate of the Reconnaissance Sabotage Order perched next to her. Gabriella tried to ignore her headache as she wondered what a soldier of the elite RSO division was doing at her bedside. The soldier’s face finally came into focus. He was half-shaven with unkempt brown hair, and his chestnut-colored wings lay folded at his back. His sea-green eyes stared at her intently as he wiped her forehead with a damp rag. Gabriella caught her breath. He was Major Davian, one of the Elysian military’s most respected and feared warriors. She tried to sit up and cross her fist to her chest in salute.
“No, no, lay down, soldier,” Davian said. He laid her back on the bed. “No need for that here. What happened out there?”
“When you flew into the Hover Run.”
“I did what?”
Davian frowned. “You don’t remember flying into the Hover Run?”
“You flew into there like a scab was chasing you, and another cherubian followed you in.” Davian sighed. “When you flew out, you lost your balance and ended up destroying the nectar reservoir.”
Gabriella gulped. “Destroy…ing?”
“The nectar reservoir?”
Davian nodded again. “The City of Ezzer lost its entire store of nectar. That’s going hurt our honeywine production for the next two months until the sprites can replenish it. Maurice has officially barred you from the Treetop Inn for life. And Seraph Zephor is ready to kick you out of the military. You know how much Zephor loves his honeywine.”
“Are you sure it was me?”
Davian frowned and wiped a few strands of hair off Gabriella’s forehead. His hand lingered as he stared at her with what Gabriella interpreted to be pity. “It was you. I’m the one who carried you here after you passed out.”
Gabriella groaned, shocked that she would ever enter the Hover Run, which was reserved for the Elysian military’s most elite, and embarrassed that Davian, of all soldiers, had witnessed such a horrible stunt. “But I’m just a guard. Why would I even enter the Hover Run?”
“That’s what the rest of us are wondering. Unfortunately, quite a few officers think you did it as a stunt to get yourself noticed, but—”
Gabriella sat up determined to keep Davian from thinking of her as a show-off. “Sir, you have to believe me. I would never try the Hover Run without permission. I swear—I—”
“I believe you, soldier.” Davian placed his hands on Gabriella’s shoulders and laid her back down. “I’ve watched you enough in training. You wouldn’t have flown in there on your own accord. Not without good reason.” At this, Davian’s eyes narrowed. “I swear I thought I saw someone chase you in. Tell me what happened, and I’ll try to ease things up with the seraph a bit.”
“But I can’t remember.”
Gabriella closed her eyes and thought. “I’m sorry, sir, but I can only remember up to the graduation ceremony. Then all of us headed to the Treetop. I realized I forgot my helmet, so I flew back to get it. That’s all I remember.”
“Well, I wish you had put it on before you—wait a minute.” The major bent down and picked up a syringe off the floor. Davian opened the syringe and tasted a drop of the medicine still inside. He spit it out and narrowed his eyes. He stared back and forth from Gabriella to the window and at the door.
“Sit up for just a moment, soldier. I need to check something.”
Gabriella sat up, and Davian’s fingers ran across her neck and down both of her arms. He then inspected the base of her wings. His hands combed through her wing feathers, tickling her and making her bite her lip to keep from laughing—until his fingers lingered on a particular spot near her lower wing-base. He huffed, but to Gabriella, it sounded almost like a growl. He turned Gabriella around and stared into her eyes. “Look left for me.”
Gabriella looked left.
“Now look right.”
Gabriella looked right.
Davian laid her back down. “Soldier, someone injected you with a dose of memory serum. It’s a top-secret potion we’ve been experimenting with. It’s only in testing stages right now. Obviously you learned something you weren’t supposed to learn. And if my suspicions are correct, you knew that as well, so you took off.” He looked into Gabriella’s eyes again and frowned. “Unfortunately, any information regarding the incident won’t be coming from you. Where did you go to retrieve your helmet?”
“The shower-house, sir.”
“I’ll check it out and see what I can find. In the meantime, stay here and do whatever the healers tell you. If anyone asks you what happened, tell them the truth: that you don’t remember and your head hurts.”
Davian smiled at her and turned to leave. “I’ll talk to Zephor and make sure you get a premium assignment on Earth, but until I find out more information on this, I’m afraid it will have to stay between you and me.”
Before he left, he added one more thing. “You may want to keep that helmet of yours on at all times for a good ten to twelve years. We don’t know much about the side effects of this memory serum. Another good hit to the head like that might wipe out your entire memory.”
Davian scowled as he left Gabriella’s room wondering who had chased Gabriella into the Hover Run. And why erase part of her memory? He bumped into a herald, who reached for Gabriella’s door. Davian grabbed the herald’s arm. “She needs her rest.”
The herald held up a scroll. “She’s been assigned to Earth, sir. I’m—”
Davian tightened his grip on the herald’s arm. “She’s not ready to go to Earth. Who authorized this?”
“I don’t know who gave the order, Major. I’m just delivering it.”
Davian released the herald and watched him fly into Gabriella’s room. Someone obviously wanted the girl out of Elysia. Davian stormed out of the healing house, determined to find out who assigned Gabriella to Earth.
Later that evening, Davian frowned as he flew through the trees. No one, it turned out, could tell him who placed the assignment order—even after his questioning turned heated. Davian glanced up at the sky and stopped.
Was that a new star in the constellation, Capral?
Davian landed on a tree branch, still staring at the night sky.
And the moon is waning, he thought. It can’t be.
Concerns about Gabriella disappeared, and a new worry took their place.
Chapter One: A Message of Hope
Seven Years Later…
Hoof beats pounded against the forest floor. Alexor concentrated on keeping himself upright on Jeleth’s back as they galloped through the woods. With each stride, the herald grimaced. The damp soil did little to mute Jeleth’s steps. Anyone a mile away could hear the clamor, but they needed to forgo stealth for speed. Though a soft mist had settled around them, Alexor could see darkened shadows darting through the trees. The odor of rotten garbage and burning sulfur—the familiar stench associated with their enemies, the mornachts—began to spread throughout the forest.
“They’ve found us,” Alexor muttered. He chastised himself for choosing a path through the woods instead of out in the open. He knew better. The southern front was infested with mornachts waiting to ambush a single cherubian like him. He should have sacrificed time and ridden around the forest instead of through it.
An arrow whistled near the herald’s head and imbedded itself deep inside a tree. The prickle of adrenaline coursed through his body, numbing him to the autumn chill that only a few minutes ago seemed to seep through his black breastplate and tunic.
Jeleth neighed and veered left around a massive trunk that blocked their path. The herald leaned into the turn. His sweaty palms gripped the silver-white, almost iridescent strands of hair that flowed from Jeleth’s mane.
Three more arrows screamed past. One nearly hit Jeleth’s long neck.
Jeleth took another sharp turn—this time to the right—to avoid another tree. Alexor struggled to stay on his back. His thighs stung with exhaustion from gripping Jeleth’s sides. Riding bareback on a unicorn who made his own decisions was no easy task. Normally, the herald could have used his wings for a balance. Unfortunately, his wings extended to twice his body length, making excellent targets—even with their brown coloring.
Alexor’s hand involuntarily patted the brass cylinder that jostled around in the pocket of his maroon kilt. The buttons would keep it secure, but he still worried. Did his enemies know about the scroll locked inside the cylinder? Did they see Ahimus, the head of the scribes, hand it to him? If he died, would the mornachts search his body and find it?
They must not get this scroll.
If the mornachts found the scroll before he could deliver it to Seraph Zephor, it would destroy everything his people had fought for during the past 3000 years and endanger those under Elysia’s protection. Dying in this ambush was unacceptable.
For a tempting instant, Alexor considered leaping off Jeleth’s back, hiding in the trees, and soaring into the sky. Though many frowned upon it, Elysia did not penalize soldiers who abandoned a unicorn who had agreed to bear them. Protecting the scroll was paramount, he tried to reason.
Alexor clenched Jeleth’s mane harder, resisting the temptation to flee. If he died, he would die with honor, not live as a coward.
The few moments it took for the herald to make up his mind were the only moments he had to flee. The mornachts’ sulfuric smell increased. Several of them scurried through the limbs above them. He could not escape through flight now; they would surely shoot him down once he left the shelter of the trees.
A shower of arrows flew past them. One embedded itself in Alexor’s leg. He let out a sickening grunt and twisted Jeleth’s mane in his fingers as acidic poison from the arrow’s shaft leaked into his flesh. He reached for the poisonwood arrow with his right hand. If he could remove it, he might survive.
He pulled his hand back. The wound was too deep. The poison had already burned into his skin, and its sting coursed through his bloodstream. The arrow’s effects would be irreversible at this point. Pulling the barbed arrow out would only damage his leg more, and he would lose his hand if he touched the shaft.
Conserve energy. Live as long as possible.
Reaching Seraph Zephor before he died was his only option. Alexor might have fifteen minutes, thirty if he was lucky.
“How much longer?” he yelled, hoping Jeleth would hear him over the wind rushing past their ears and the thundering hooves.
“Twenty minutes,” neighed Jeleth.
With one hand holding Jeleth’s mane, the herald reached into his pack and yanked out his long cloak. He risked half-way extending his wings for balance. What damage could an arrow in the wing do now? He ignored the throbbing in his leg while he wrapped the cloak around Jeleth’s long neck, tying himself to his steed.
“Take my body… to Seraph Zephor,” said Alexor. Both the race through the woods and his wounds had drained him. “Tell him that… the message from the scribes is in my left pocket.” He braced himself as Jeleth bounded over a fallen tree. “Tell no one but the seraph.”
“Or the officers?” asked Jeleth, displaying a unicorn’s typical lack of emotion.
“No officers!” panted Alexor. “Zephor only. Alone.” The scribes had warned him about a traitor within the Elysian military and instructed him to tell no one but Zephor about it—not even the unicorns. Their desire for secrecy confused Alexor. He would rather have announced the traitor’s name to all of Heaven’s Realm and bring him to justice, but he trusted the scribes.
“My mission was secret,” Alexor explained, “but the mornachts were waiting for us…” He took a few breaths. “…after we left the scribes’ library.” He groaned. The arrow’s poison was traveling up his leg. “Someone put them on our trail. Someone… with access.”
An arrow buried itself in Jeleth’s hindquarter. The stallion whinnied but continued to run.
“Can you make it?” asked Alexor. Pain and fatigue muted his voice. Jeleth’s survival was now Elysia’s only hope.
Jeleth grunted. “I can make it as long as my horn stays attached.” Unicorns’ horns possessed healing powers so great that an enemy could only kill one through crushing, drowning, or burning.
“They won’t take your horn,” said Alexor. “Not while I’m alive.” He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and pulled his sword out of its sheath. The sword felt heavier than usual, and the herald knew he could not fight in his weakened state. He hoped a show of valor would encourage the mornachts to stay hidden in the trees. He adopted his fiercest glare, staring up the tree trunks that disappeared into the fog above.
The fog has thickened, he realized. The mist might hide them long enough to escape the forest without attracting more arrows.
Jeleth continued galloping, but Alexor could feel him favoring his back leg. The herald’s head fell to his chest. Exhaustion overcame him as the poison spread throughout his body. He worried for his guardian, Arch-Seraph Zephor—the only father he had known. Zephor had taken him into his service after his parents were killed in a mornacht raid when Alexor was just a boy. He wished the scribes had written down the warning for Zephor instead of just telling him.
“I feel you fading,” said Jeleth. “I can run faster once we leave this wood. Lean up against me.”
Alexor had heard that unicorns’ sweat contained some of their healing power. Maybe Jeleth’s would help keep him alive long enough to find Zephor. He leaned his head and body against Jeleth and wrapped his arms around his warm neck. In a few moments, the pain lessened, and his muscles relaxed.
Soon, the swirling mist around them turned from dark grey to light grey. They had escaped the forest. Every part of Alexor’s uniform felt damp, and beads of dew dripped off his helmet onto his nose. The sword fell out of his hand. Jeleth’s speed would be more effective than a weapon at this stage. He shivered and tightened the cloak that held him to Jeleth.
“Hold on,” said Jeleth. His iridescent horn glowed bright red as he accessed his stored energy. He took off in a gallop most cherubians had never experienced. The herald felt as though he was soaring down the mountainside, something he never expected to feel on the back of a unicorn.
Alexor tried to control his breathing as they ran. He needed to keep his heart rate low to slow the poison.
A few miles later, the red glow in Jeleth’s spiraled horn began to fade, and his breathing sounded labored. Jeleth was losing his stored energy, especially now that he needed it to heal himself. They would slow down soon. Alexor hoped they would make it.
“We’re approaching the tower,” said Jeleth.
Even without Jeleth’s words, Alexor knew they were close. The fog may have hidden the southern front’s charred, leafless trees, but it could not block out the territory’s smoky stench or the scorched grass under Jeleth’s hooves.
Through the haze, they finally beheld the Southern Command Tower, an obelisk encircled by a gated wall. They were close enough for Alexor to see a lone figure pacing along the parapet. For the past few months, his master had been pacing more than usual. He leaned against Jeleth’s neck, unable to move. Bodies of fallen cherubians, Alexor’s people, lay strewn across the ground. Healers and other soldiers knelt beside the wounded. He and Jeleth must have missed the battle by half a day.
Jeleth’s gait slowed, and Alexor could feel the unicorn’s body quiver as he hobbled to the tower.
Just a few more minutes and we’ll be there, he thought. He felt too weak to speak. Hold on for a few more minutes.
Jeleth, sensing the herald’s urgency, let out a neigh and fought on until they reached the tower gate where he collapsed. Alexor, still tied to Jeleth, fell with him. He lay on the ground with his leg trapped under Jeleth’s body. He kept his hand close to the scroll in his left pocket.
Alexor, lacking the strength to twist his neck up, saw only a sea of soldiers’ black boots and maroon and black kilts surrounding them in frenzied commotion. Suddenly, the soldiers hushed. Their boots parted, creating a path. The soldiers’ fists hit their breastplates in salute to the officer who walked toward him. The black leather trim on the officer’s silver seraph’s kilt swished about his knees faster than usual. Seraph Zephor, Alexor realized with relief, was only a few paces away.
Zephor knelt next to Alexor. His face was as stoic as usual, but the creases around his brown eyes had deepened with worry. “Get me a healer!” Zephor yelled. The silver star on his black helmet flickered in the sunlight.
The soldiers stayed put, staring at the wounded herald with pity. They knew healers would be of no help.
Zephor’s nose flared, and he flashed the soldiers a snarl only an unlucky few had ever seen. “Quickly!” he roared.
Zephor yanked a knife out of his boot and slit the cloak that tied Alexor to the unicorn. He pulled the herald out from under Jeleth and laid him on the ground. Only then did Alexor notice the damage Jeleth had sustained. Not one, but three arrows stuck into the Jeleth’s side, and blood striped his white coat. Jeleth’s eyes were shut. He barely breathed.
Alexor turned his gaze back to Zephor. Rarely did unicorns die, and he did not want Jeleth’s death to be his last sight. He struggled to lift his right hand and crossed his fist over his chest.
“Seraph,” he gasped. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the scroll. “From the scribes…. Davian…was right.” His vision blurred. Only Zephor’s face remained in focus. He felt Zephor’s strong hands grasp the scroll.
“Tell the High Seraph…” He tried to finish the scribe’s warning, but his lips fell silent. Alexor, herald to Elysia’s second most powerful military leader, died with honor in his guardian’s arms. The name of the traitor died with him.
Zephor’s face remained emotionless as he grasped the encased message, but his white knuckles and clenched jaw betrayed his anger. He crossed his own fist over his chest in a final salute to his herald just as the healer and two assistants arrived.
“Well done, my good and faithful servant,” Zephor said. “Godspeed and safe journey.”
“Godspeed and safe journey,” repeated the healer and his assistants.
Zephor held the salute until the healers carted Alexor’s body away. He shook his head and wondered how many more young boys like Alexor would have to die before the war ended.
A bitter wind rustled through the feathers in Zephor’s wings. His vacant eyes stared ahead, watching his soldiers at work. Their black breastplates and helmets bore numerous dents and scratches from recent battles. Notched swords hung at their sides. Mud caked their boots, legs, and arms. Their shoulders hunched from weariness. Zephor had sent a letter to the City of Ezzer weeks ago complaining about the lack of supplies and weapons and demanding to know why his country refused to send him reinforcements. He had yet to receive an answer, and more of his soldiers had perished as a result.
At least these soldiers were alive. Too many under his command had died in battle. Zephor stared at the ground where his herald had lain, and the horrors he had witnessed during his 642 years of service flooded his thoughts. His chin fell to his chest. He closed his eyes for a moment, then lifted his head, looked at the sky, and silently asked, “Are you there?”
The unicorn who had born Alexor let out a soft neigh, and his nose nudged Zephor’s hand.
It was then Zephor remembered the scribes’ message. He stared at the brass cylinder in his hand. Alexor had said, “Davian was right.” Was it possible?
It was seven years ago, according to Zephor’s count, when he had bumped into Major Davian, his top soldier, outside the Treetop Inn. Davian ignored the bump. Instead he stared at the sky, and his lips moved in a bare whisper as though he was repeating something from memory.
“Clear night,” Zephor said.
Davian barely nodded and continued to stare at the sky. “Barely any moon tonight, sir,” he said, pointing at the thin, slivered crescent.
“Ah! We’ll have new moon tomorrow night.”
Davian said nothing.
“So is tonight supposed to be bad luck, Major?” continued Zephor. “Or is something else bothering—?”
“How many stars are in Capral’s horn, Seraph?”
“What? I don’t know. Four? Five? What’s wrong, Davian?”
“Four. There have always been four.” Davian pointed to the constellation of Capral, the great unicorn seer. “Tonight I see five.”
“Looks like you’ve discovered a new star, then. Maybe the scribes will let you name it.”
“You wouldn’t approve of the name I’d pick, Seraph.”
Zephor frowned. “How about ‘Fallen Nectar Reservoir,’ instead?”
Davian stiffened and narrowed his eyes. “Someone chased her in there, Seraph.”
“Maybe. But let’s not argue about that anymore. Shouldn’t have brought it up.” Zephor stared at the new star on the tip of Capral’s horn. “So do you want to tell me how the moon and a new star have managed to distract you this much?”
“I was just thinking, Seraph. Do you remember in the Runes, where it says, ‘When Capral’s horn stretches toward the waning moon’…?”
The feathers in Zephor’s wings stood straight up and goose bumps ran down his arms and legs.
“The prophecy?” he whispered.
“That’s what I’m thinking, sir.”
“I’ll alert the scribes immediately.”
Even then, Zephor didn’t believe Davian. He and the rest of Elysia, had waited over 7,000 years for an answer to the prophecy. Zephor had doubted it would come in his lifetime.
For the past seven years the scribes had told Zephor only that they were still searching—that is, until a week ago when they sent Zephor a hawk with a slip of paper in its talons that said: Send a herald immediately.
Alexor had volunteered for the two-day journey—against Zephor’s wishes. He had no desire to send his herald through the most dangerous part of the southern front. The track was too dangerous, but Alexor had insisted he could handle it. Now Zephor wished he had not allowed the boy to go.
Alexor isn’t a boy anymore, Zephor reminded himself.
Alexor was over one hundred years old, the unofficial age of being a man—something the young herald often reminded him.
He wasn’t a boy.
Zephor pushed the thought away, refusing to let the pain of Alexor’s death enter his mind. He would ignore it, as he had done for the deaths of all those he loved. He reached under his breastplate and pulled out a small crystal barely the size of his fifth finger, which was attached to a chain that hung around his neck. He tapped the crystal against the cylinder’s clasp. It popped open, revealing a scroll tied with a moss-green ribbon. Zephor unrolled the scroll and scanned its message. When finished, he pocketed the scroll, flew to the top of the command tower, and blew three short blasts on his horn. After returning to the wall he waited for the answer to his summons.
He did not wait long.
Within minutes, three unicorns galloped to the Southern Command Tower. Running with precision, they sounded almost as one, and their white coats made them look like ghosts in the fog. A gold medallion hung on the middle steed’s neck. It was the Medallion of Ezzer a gift from the great cherubian king, Ezzer, to Azernoth, the ancient king of the unicorns. Zephor raised his eyebrows. Azernoth would never answer a simple summons, and he wondered what brought the king himself to the Southern Command Tower.
Zephor heard many of the soldiers around him catch their breath as the unicorns rode through the gates. He knew that most of them had never seen Azernoth, and they gaped as he stood before them—a stern, fearsome, kingly beast with cloaked power and infinite wisdom. As Zephor flew to greet Azernoth, he remembered the awe he first felt in the king’s presence. He felt the same awe even now, despite the numerous battles they both had commanded alongside one another.
Zephor crossed his fist over his chest and knelt. “I wasn’t expecting such a royal answer to my summons, your majesty.”
“Cassadern insisted we answer you,” said Azernoth with a nod to Cassadern, the unicorn who stood to his left. “He said your summons was urgent—and of utmost importance to both our races.”
“Did he?” Zephor narrowed his eyes.
Cassadern always seemed to know things he should never have known and guess things he should never have guessed. Zephor suspected Cassadern had already guessed much of Alexor’s message, and that made him nervous. He preferred to keep all information, even information as routine as who had afternoon watch on Wednesday, closely guarded. This message was much too important to share with anyone, even allies as trusted as the unicorns, and Zephor hoped Cassadern would keep his guesses to himself.
“I need one of you to bear me to the City of Ezzer, your majesty,” he said to Azernoth. “Unfortunately, we’re too close to the southern front to risk flight, even in this fog.”
A pained neigh pierced the air before Azernoth could answer. The king looked to Zephor for an explanation.
“Jeleth, your majesty,” explained Zephor. “Mornachts attacked him and my herald.”
“That explains why Jeleth has been missing for two days. Wandor,” he said to the other unicorn with him, “see what you can do.”
Wandor joined the healers as Azernoth turned back to Zephor. “How is your herald?”
Zephor laid his hand on Azernoth’s neck and bowed his head. “Alexor has gone to be with his father and mother.”
“I sense pain in you, Seraph—enough pain to reduce most of your race to tears. You hide it well. Very well.”
“Obviously not from your race, your majesty.”
“I can help, Seraph.”
Azernoth touched Zephor’s forehead with his horn, and the old seraph felt his anger and pain rise up through his body and out of his forehead.
Azernoth shook his head. “Too much anger, Zephor. Sometimes I think you cherubians are much too emotional creatures for war.”
“Emotion produces the very things that win wars, your majesty. Things such as hope and valor.”
“Perhaps, but it also produces things that lose wars: hatred, treason, revenge… Your race’s ability to feel gives you both the bad and the good. You will never separate the two.”
Zephor patted Azernoth’s mane. “I’ll take the bad so I can experience the good.”
Azernoth cocked his head. “That’s funny. Interesting. Do that again.”
Zephor rested his hand on Azernoth’s back, and the king closed his eyes. “I feel something that I haven’t felt in you in a long time.” He nuzzled Zephor’s arm. “Hope. Strange. You were never the type to hope, yet I can feel a trace of it in you now—even after the loss of your beloved herald. Why would that be?”
Cassadern neighed something in the unicorn-tongue to the king. Azernoth neighed back, but before he could say anything to Zephor, Wandor returned.
“Jeleth will make it, your majesty,” he said. “He’ll scar more than usual, but he’ll survive.”
“I wish we cherubians could heal ourselves as well as you unicorns,” muttered Zephor.
“Such a gift is too dangerous for a race as proud as yours,” said Azernoth. “And I don’t think any of you would enjoy having a long horn sticking out your forehead.” He glanced at the sky. “Your time is growing short, my friend. I will personally bear you to the City of Ezzer.”
Zephor had not expected such an offer, and he bowed his head in gratitude. “I’m honored, your majesty.”
“No, the honor is mine, Zephor.”
Zephor wondered what sparked such a reply as he mounted the back of the unicorn king. Azernoth neighed loudly, reared his head, and took off.
“Keep to the west,” Zephor said as they rode. “We just took control of the southern portals to our east, but the mornachts are mounting forces to take them back.” Portals linked Heaven’s Realm, the dimension where cherubians and other enchanted creatures lived, to Earth, and mornachts wanted anything that made their access to Earth easier.
“Your forces at the command tower won’t be enough to hold the mornachts back, Zephor,” said Azernoth.
“Something I intend to mention to the High Seraph when I see him.”
They ran until mid-afternoon. When the fog cleared, Zephor saw a huge forest on top of the hill ahead, the Forest of the City of Ezzer—the capital of Elysia. The forest stretched almost three miles, and a stone wall thirty feet thick and over 300 feet high surrounded it. Zephor squinted, barely able to make out the dim outline of a palace made of clear crystal that climbed out of the center of the forest up to the sky. It was the renowned Palace of Ezzer: a tree-palace made of quartz, so enormous that it took up three Elysian trees. The palace still amazed Zephor each time he saw it above the treetops—even today, when the clouds hid the sun and kept the palace from glistening.
Four heavily guarded entrances stood in each wall at the north, south, east, and west. The guards at the southern gate jumped to attention and crossed their fists over their chests as Zephor and Azernoth passed through.
The seraph and unicorn galloped between the trunks of the five-hundred-foot-tall Elysian trees. Roots like stalactites fell from the trees’ lower branches all the way to the ground and eventually grew as thick as the trunks themselves, creating excellent structural support the city’s homes and businesses. They sped past the Avitheater, a huge arena of over twenty-five trees that was home to all cherubian sporting events and fine arts performances. Rushing through the marketplace (which spanned over forty trees and offered every item of food, clothing, weaponry, and house wares available anywhere in Elysia) they passed the industrial wood where blacksmiths, goldsmiths, millers, tanners, and other such tradesman worked. They sped through the square, so full of quartz statues of cherubian heroes and artisans it resembled a year round ice festival. Upon reaching the thirty-foot-high quartz wall that surrounded the trees supporting the Palace of Ezzer, Zephor dismounted.
“It was good to ride together once again,” he said to Azernoth. “Makes me almost feel young.”
“But you still feel weary.”
“I’ve felt like this before. It will pass.” He waited until after he spoke these words to pat Azernoth’s mane, hoping to prevent the king from sensing their hollow ring.
Azernoth gave Zephor a quick nuzzle, then put his mouth to Zephor’s ear and whispered, “Why, even now, when you have the answer you’ve awaited for so long, why do you still doubt?”
Before Zephor could reply, Azernoth neighed and sped away. Zephor watched Azernoth depart and wondered how much he and Cassadern knew. He pulled the scroll out of his breastplate and flew through the quartz gates into the palace gardens, which were located beneath the tree palace. During the summer, flowers of every shape and color—from pastel blues and pinks to bright yellows and oranges—bloomed on the bushes and vines that climbed the tree trunks and roots. Most of the flowers and leaves had gone into hiding, however, leaving only a few late fall blooms as decoration.
The Palace of Ezzer, which looked as though it was carved out of a gigantic block of ice, rested overhead in the tops of the trees. Its floor plan formed a ring that encircled the trees, and each interior balcony gazed down upon the palace courtyard. Quartz statues of Elysia’s greatest heroes and kings lined the courtyard’s perimeter. Zephor flew to the center of the courtyard and landed in front of the Statue of Ezzer, which stood over fifty feet tall. Ezzer’s right hand brandished a sword, and his left arm cradled a scroll, as though he was guarding the scroll itself.
The inscription on the foot of the statue read: In times of darkness, let faith be your guide. Let your hope never fail.
Zephor knelt in front of the statue and crossed his fist over his chest, then flew up into the tree palace. Inside, ornate carvings of unicorns, fauns, and nymphs ran up and down the quartz pillars and walls. The sun’s rays poured through the walls and reflected rainbows at every angle. Zephor ignored the beauty, even when he passed his favorite carving of a particularly exquisite nymph, and instead focused on the great, sapphire encrusted doors that led to the Command Chamber.
The two soldiers guarding the doors bowed and saluted as Zephor passed. He entered an immense hall full of yet more carved pillars supporting the vaulted ceiling. Though the ceiling was only twenty feet high near the doors, its pinnacle rose to almost a hundred feet at the end of the hall where a crystal throne sat on a dais.
The throne was empty.
The Command Chamber was once a throne room during the days when Ezzer and the kings after him ruled Elysia. Now that the days of kings had been replaced with the days of prime ministers, it served as the Elysian military’s central conference room. A crystal table that seated forty cherubians stood in the center of the room, and at the head of that table perched a regal cherubian with hair and a beard as white as a unicorn’s and the wisdom to match. This was High Seraph Octirius, a seraph so respected that none dared defame him.
Zephor knelt before him and saluted.
“You may rise, Zephor,” said Octirius, who often made his distaste for Elysian formalities well known.
Zephor took a seat on a perching stool. “I just received word from the scribes this afternoon. We’ve found him, Seraph! The human our divinations speak of. The one who will save Earth. We know where he is!”
Octirius stared at Zephor for a moment and raised his eyebrows. “Then the Runes have been fulfilled?”
Zephor nodded. “Indeed.”
Octirius’ aged face broke into a smile. “Excellent! Most excellent. Hold on. Let me summon Salla.” Octirius rose from his perching stool and whispered something to one of the guards outside the door.
A few moments later, a seraph with dark hair and large, dark eyes that made most women sigh flew inside. This was Zephor’s younger counterpart, Arch-Seraph Salla. Salla shed his charming smile the moment he saw Zephor, as he usually did. “Here to beg for more aid already, Zephor? I thought a skilled seraph like you—”
“You will leave both your disagreements outside of the Command Chamber, Salla,” ordered Octirius. He turned to Zephor, who had opened his mouth to retort. “Both includes you.”
Zephor shut his mouth and frowned.
Salla bowed to Octirius. “My apologies, sir.” He hopped on a perch across from Zephor, avoiding the elder seraph’s eyes. He turned to Octirius. “You summoned me?”
“Zephor tells me we have much to celebrate,” Octirius said. “We’ve found the child the Runes bade us look for.”
Salla looked back and forth between the two seraphs in disbelief. Then he smiled. “Truly, truly wonderful news. Are you sure?”
“The scribes are positive,” said Zephor. “One of them said he would bet his last scroll that this boy is the one.”
“That’s definitely a yes,” muttered Salla. “How much longer do you think we’ll have until this war finally ends?”
“Patience, Salla,” said Zephor. “He’s only seven.”
“Seven?” said Octirius. He stroked his beard. “Too young for battle, but old enough to learn. Does the enemy know of his existence?”
The High Seraph nodded. “Then we must do everything in our power to keep it that way. Which cherubians know of this human, Zephor?”
“None, sir, save the scribes and the three of us. His guard doesn’t even know.”
“Who is his guard?”
The mention of the boy’s guard turned the stoic seraph sour. “Neither of you are going to believe this,” Zephor said. “His guard is Gabriella.”
Salla burst into laughter. “One of your favorites, isn’t she, Zephor?”
Even Octirius chuckled. “Gabriella? Wasn’t she that spirited cadet who tried the Hover Run after graduation?”
Zephor refused to laugh or even chuckle. Elysia only allowed senior officers and members of the elite Reconnaissance and Sabotage Order (RSO) division of the military to attempt the Hover Run. The last guard to be granted permission was Davian over 200 years ago. That stubborn Gabriella decided to try right after she graduated. Her little stunt broke the nectar reservoir and left the City of Ezzer knee-deep in the sticky goo for a fortnight. The loss of nectar created a severe honeywine shortage for five moons.
“That’s the one,” Zephor said. “She’s one of the reasons I hurried as fast as I could to get here. We need to reassign her immediately before—”
“And what horrible mistake has she made that she deserves reassignment, my dear arch-seraph?” Octirius asked after he stopped chuckling. “Or are you still bitter over the honeywine shortage?”
Zephor huffed. “She doesn’t have the experience necessary to guard a human as important as—”
“Give the soldier some leeway, Zephor,” said Salla. “That was seven years ago, and if my memory hasn’t failed me, she almost did make the Hover Run.”
Octirius raised his hands to silence the two seraphs before they started one of their notorious arguments. “I think we shall leave Gabriella where she is. I don’t want to risk reassignment this late in the human’s life. It might damage him, and it could alert the mornachts to his importance. We don’t need all of Morvenia trying to assassinate him before he turns eight. And…” He stroked his beard. “I can’t explain it, but something tells me she may play a more important role in all this than any of us can even imagine.”
Zephor frowned. “Should I let her know about her charge, sir?”
“Not until we must. Salla, have Sephus place one of his hawks on the child, and alert me the moment it sees a mornacht in the vicinity. Otherwise, let time run its course until the boy is old enough.” Octirius tapped his fingers on the table. “And now we must decide if we should tell the Prime Minister about this.”
Zephor frowned. The Prime Minister was currently trying to dig himself out of his latest scandal, and Zephor feared he might use the information to bolster his fading reputation with the Elysian people.
“I don’t believe the Code covers the Child of the Runes, sir,” he suggested.
Salla pulled out a small scroll and unrolled it. He found the section he wanted and cleared his throat. “The Code says, ‘The Prime Minister must be informed of all military operations involving troops of more than one host and of all serious threats to the City of Ezzer.’”
“Well, we certainly can’t consider this boy a threat to the City of Ezzer,” said Zephor.
“And he only has one guard,” said Salla. “That’s only one-hundredth of a host.”
“There’s no need to inform him at all,” said Zephor.
“Definitely no need,” agreed Salla.
“Well, the Child of the Runes must certainly be special if just his discovery can bring peace and agreement between you two,” said Octirius.
“Having to beg the Prime Minister for his approval of our every military move surpasses our distaste for each other, sir,” said Salla.
“I concur,” said Zephor.
Octirius chuckled and then turned serious. “So we don’t tell him. You two are witnesses that I am not going beyond my authority in keeping this a secret. Zephor, inform the scribes that they will suffer the worst form of execution imaginable if word of this gets out.”
Zephor nodded, and talk turned to other matters.
After the meeting, Zephor left the Command Chamber, worrying about the boy’s guard. A boy as special as this needed a guard of the highest caliber—a guard in top shape who knew enemy tactics inside and out, a guard with the ability to bring any charge through an earthian battle zone without a scrape.
Only one cherubian alive fit that description: RSO Major Davian.
Unfortunately, Davian was currently on a top secret assignment deep in the heart of Morvenia, and Zephor hesitated to call him back except in case of an extreme emergency.
Chapter Two: Earth’s Future Rests On…
Major Davian mopped the sweat off his forehead with his bandana and crept toward a boulder that guarded the edge of a dismal, overgrown forest and overlooked what used to be a lush meadow.
The major had sea-green eyes and scraggly, brown hair, which he allowed to grow unhindered since he left on assignment six months ago. He was approaching the age when his body should have been turning soft, but years of battle and his own personal training regimen kept it hardened and strong. He was handsome (save for his nose, which had endured too many breaks, and a scar on his chin), and he tried to hide his good looks underneath a half-shaved face and a dirty, scratched uniform.
“The way a soldier’s uniform should look,” he often said.
He wore the uniform of the RSO division. It was similar to that of other cherubian warriors, but the breastplate was dark bronze instead of black, and instead of maroon and black, his kilt and tunic were interwoven with green and brown threads of various shades, making it easy for him to blend into the trees. A ring of white metal engraved with a hawk encircled the fifth finger on his right hand. The ring stood out, not because of the metal’s unique hue, but because jewelry clashed with the major’s personality. He perched behind the boulder, raised his arm, and signaled his unit to stay low and wait for further instructions. He readied his crossbow and peered over the boulder with his spyglass, scanning the meadow for signs of Morvenian troops.
He studied the edge of the surrounding wood. Nothing—but…wait a minute. He glanced back at the seemingly innocent rock nestled in the middle of the glen and saw two sleeping mornachts. Five yards away, another mornacht sat on guard with his bow in his lap.
Davian slapped a bloodsucker before the insect could drill into his arm and then glanced at the dull, white sun that tried to shine through the dense haze. He detested Morvenia. The sweltering air smelled like burning garbage. Smoke and brimstone rose out of the land’s fault lines and crevices, and the entire countryside reeked of mornachts and their detestable odor. He slapped yet another bloodsucker and wished for the 3,424th time that Elysia and Morvenia would agree to take a year of cease-fire so he could go home, read a couple of good scrolls, and maybe start a vegetable garden. He glanced back at the mornachts in the glen and frowned. A cease-fire would have to wait until he figured out how to sneak his unit past them.
Davian motioned for Captain Eric to join him. Eric was short for an RSO, but he worked hard to maintain his muscular build, which kept other soldiers from picking on his size. He kept his blond hair immaculately trimmed and his face clean-shaven, even while on assignment, and his eyes often searched for a good time more than they searched for mornachts. Eric happened to be Davian’s closest, most trusted friend since the moment they met in RSO training. Although Davian had always performed a step above Eric, it never seemed to affect their friendship, and Davian always assigned him to his units.
Eric extended his chestnut wings, which looked almost exactly like Davian’s, and low-hovered to the boulder. Low-hovering was flight between two and three feet above the ground, a maneuver cherubians developed when Morvenian snipers infiltrated the south after the war first broke out. The mornachts shot any cherubian they spotted in the air, forcing the cherubians to either fly from tree to tree (still extremely dangerous), walk, or ride a unicorn south of the City of Ezzer. The low-hover became the preferred method of travel in the south for soldiers without access to unicorns. It was quicker than running, but slower than normal flying or riding. It required massive amounts of strength and endurance, for any improper stop for rest would send a flyer careening into the ground. Many cherubians found low-hovering too tiring and preferred walking. Those cherubians were not in RSO, which required all of its members to maintain full mastery of the low-hover.
Davian handed Eric the spyglass. “By the bushes, near the edge of the wood,” he whispered. “Three of them. Probably infiltrators.” Infiltrators were Morvenia’s most highly trained soldiers, and Davian always tried to keep as far away from them as possible.
Eric looked through the spyglass and frowned. “Definitely infiltrators.” He returned the spyglass and crouched behind the boulder with Davian. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they were part of that lovely little party we managed to sneak around this morning.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Davian motioned to Lieutenant Marcus, a giant of a cherubian who kept his dark hair and beard as scruffy as Davian’s. Marcus towered over the tallest cherubians, and his massive frame made even the unicorns wary. Most cherubians scattered when Marcus flew near, as mice do when they see a cat, and Davian often thought that odd. One look in Marcus’s eyes would tell anyone that he was one of the kindest cherubians ever to fly through Heaven’s Realm. Despite his immense size and his kind heart, Marcus was the quickest, fiercest, most agile fighter Davian had ever known. He carried not one, but two swords, and Davian still could not tell which of his hands was dominant. Marcus’s brown and black striped wings carried him to both of them and took the spyglass.
Eric slapped a bloodsucker. “What do you think, Major?” he whispered.
“Well, I think I haven’t killed a scab in over three weeks,” Marcus whispered as he handed the spyglass back to Davian. RSOs referred to mornachts as scabs. He held out his huge hands. “These hands are just dying to wring some serious Morvenian neck.”
“Hey major? Can we have a look, too?” whispered Josephi, the youngest and most annoying of Davian’s unit.
Marcus shot Davian and Eric an evil grin. “But since I don’t have any Morvenian neck to wring…” He raised his eyebrows a few times, cracked his knuckles, and gave Josephi a hungry leer.
“Leave the runts alone, Marcus,” whispered Davian.
“Runt” was the term commissioned the officers used to refer to non-commissioned officers and guards. Davian’s unit had two: Sergeants Josephi and Corporal Snead, the unit’s lanky sniper. Josephi, the slightest of Davian’s unit, was a mapper. This was his first mission as an RSO, and he had already managed to annoy everyone in the unit including Davian, who was known for his patience with runts.
Davian frowned at Eric, who was covering his mouth to hide his laughter at Marcus, who was pretending to try to keep his out-of-control hands from wringing Josephi’s neck. Eric flashed Davian a grin—a contagious grin that showed most of his teeth. He usually reserved the grin for getting himself a date or getting out of trouble. This case was the latter, and it earned him a rare snicker from Davian. Davian regained his look of seriousness, took the spyglass, and stared at the mornachts and the surrounding area.
“Going around will take some time,” he muttered.
Eric stopped laughing and glanced back at the mornachts. “It’s only three of them. You, Snead, and I could take them out at once without any problem.”
“Risky, risky,” said Davian.
Eliminating a stray scout here and there was one thing. No Morvenian commander would miss a scout or two, but he might suspect something was amiss if three infiltrators failed to report in from duty.
Davian ducked back behind the boulder. “If we kill them, they’ll blow, and probably alert that little party we did so well to avoid this morning.”
It only took three minutes for a mornacht to completely decompose after it died, and the whole decomposition process ended with an explosion. The blast could not knock out any buildings, but it could kill anything within a two-yard radius, and anyone a good 300 yards away could hear it.
“Let’s take them out, Major. That little party is nowhere near us!”
“Patience, Eric. We don’t know where we are. An entire horde of scabs might be right over the hill over there, and if they hear explosions, they’ll swarm us immediately.”
“Major, can we look?” asked Josephi again.
Eric rolled his eyes. “You could tell Josephi to fly 200 yards up in the air for a look.”
Marcus feigned his uncontrollable hands act again. “If I can’t kill the scabs, can I at least kill him? Can I, Major?”
“No, Marcus, you can’t kill him, and that’s an order! He’s our only mapper. If we lose him, we go home.” Davian turned to Josephi. “Josephi, if you ask again, I’ll unleash Marcus!”
“Yes, sir,” said Josephi. He shrank back as Marcus faked a lunge at him.
Davian grabbed the spyglass and took another look at the mornachts. “Hold up,” he whispered to Eric and Marcus. “We’ve got company.”
“What is it?” asked Eric.
“A gnome,” whispered Davian.
“What’s a gnome doing out here?” asked Marcus.
“I don’t know,” said Davian. “He’s got either a twisted foot or a bad ankle.” He watched the gnome, who wore a burgundy cloak, limp to the mornachts and hand them a small sack of what Davian assumed were coins. He narrowed his eyes. “Looks like some of our neutral friends have decided to profit off our little insurrection.”
“Let me kill him, Major,” said Marcus, whose hands had begun to shake again.
“Tempting. Very tempting, but if anyone’s going to kill one of the double-crossers, it’s going to be—” Davian stopped mid-sentence.
The mornacht had opened the sack and was counting its contents: cherubian drekels. Why would a gnome have cherubian drekels, and why would the mornachts accept them as payment?
If he’s just a messenger, it makes sense, thought Davian.
He shook his head. Impossible—absolutely impossible.
No cherubian would ever join forces with the mornachts. The gnome probably stole the drekels. Davian pocketed his spyglass and rejoined Eric and Marcus behind the rock.
“Everything okay, Major?” asked Marcus.
“Then why is your face so white,” whispered Eric.
“Lack of sun, I suppose.”
Eric glanced at Marcus, who shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “He’s been doing that a lot lately,” Marcus whispered.
“So can we let Marcus kill them, Major?” whispered Eric.
Davian shook his head. “We go around. The gnome complicates things, and the last thing we need is every scab in this country searching for a party of five cherubians.” He signaled to Snead and Josephi and prepared to leave.
“What did you see, Captain?” Josephi whispered to Eric when they returned.
“A beautiful Morvenian woman taking a bath in a lake.”
“I didn’t know scabs came in female.”
“He’s joking, idiot,” said Snead. “Scabs don’t take baths. If they fall in water, they scream—and thank you so much, Captain, for that really disgusting word picture.”
“If you don’t want the word picture, tell Tiny not to ask for one.”
Davian crushed another bloodsucker and sighed. “Is it me, Eric, or are the rookies getting dumber?” he whispered.
“I think it’s just Josephi’s class. The official rumors say their officer in charge was a little too easy on them.”
Davian shook his head in disgust and seized his last moment of peace to think about his vegetable garden, and… No, not about her. He could not risk getting distracted enough to think about her during a mission—especially with mornachts less than a hundred yards away.
“What is it, Eric?” Davian snapped.
Eric flashed Davian his signature grin. “You think about her far too much, Major.”
“I wasn’t thinking about her.”
“You were starting to. That, or you were smiling because you were thinking up a way to torture Josephi.”
“Get in formation, Eric.”
“Yes, sir,” said Eric with a wink and another snicker.
On Earth, a small boy played with his toy American Hero action figures in the sandbox behind his townhouse. The boy was seven, although most adults would have guessed he was five. He wore a pair of grimy jeans with a large hole in the right knee and a new hole beginning to form in the left, and a worn black t-shirt with bleach stains on the chest. Over that hung an oversized camouflage jacket that reached to his knees. Mud covered the boy’s face—not because he had fallen in a puddle, but because he had rubbed it on to better blend into his surrounding, as he would say.
Unseen by any humans, a young cherubian guard with deep mahogany wings that folded flat against her back perched above the boy in a tree branch. Her black breastplate curved in, accentuating her waist, and the pleats in her maroon kilt unfolded more than usual as they slid over her hips. She hated her hips and envied the more slender, straighter female cherubian guards. She shivered and tried to pull the folds of her kilt over her knees as the autumn wind grabbed one of the few remaining leaves on the tree and swept it away. She ignored the honks of the cars passing on the highway just behind the house, and kept her green eyes locked on Tommy, her charge, as she pushed some loose strands of dark brown hair into her helmet. Gabriella massaged her aching wings. She huffed and tried to wave away a sparrow that kept trying to land on her shoulder.
“Why don’t we call it quits today, Tommy?” she asked.
Tommy’s woodland adventures the day before made her cadet training seem joyful, and Gabriella hoped against hope that he would be too tired to drag her through another day of hard labor. She heaved a sigh as her charge tied one of his American Hero action figures to his toy American Hero tank with light blue fishing wire.
“What are you doing, now?” she wondered aloud.
Tommy climbed on top of the garbage can with the tank in tow. “Not again, Tommy. I just can’t do it today.” Gabriella shooed the sparrow away again. “Go away,” she whispered to the bird. She pointed to Tommy. “I’m busy with him. Find yourself a branch.”
Tommy balanced on the garbage can’s lid and prepared to jump up on the nine-foot-high cement wall that separated his yard from the interstate highway. The Wailing Wall, Gabriella called it, because Tommy usually ended up wailing sometime after he climbed on top of it. The garbage can began to tip. Gabriella shooed the sparrow away again and raced toward the can.
Unfortunately, Gabriella grabbed the can a millisecond too late. Tommy’s body slammed against the wall instead of on top of it. His arms caught the wall’s edge, and he somehow managed to pull himself up while grasping the tank, complete with the poor American Hero GI, who probably would have wet himself had he been alive. Tommy regained his balance, pushed his unkempt blond hair out of his eyes, and readjusted his glasses, then pushed the tank and the GI along the top of the wall.
The sparrow landed on a branch. It looked much too pleased with itself, Gabriella thought. She glared at it, then flew above Tommy and scowled when she counted the toys she would have to push out of the way if he fell.
“Tommy, get down! You’re not supposed to be up here!” she yelled. She rarely got cross with her charge, but her wings still ached from yesterday, and she had no desire to watch Tommy endure another one of his mother’s violent tirades.
“Lieutenant O’Connell didn’t know what hit him,” Tommy said as he pushed the tank along the wall’s edge. “When he came to, he found himself tied to an enemy tank.”
The sparrow landed on Gabriella’s shoulder and began nibbling at her ear. She swatted it away again and muttered, “You’re worse than a sprite!”
The tank stopped right above the sandbox. “But the enemy underestimated Lieutenant O’Connell’s abilities,” said Tommy.
The sparrow began nibbling at Gabriella’s ear again. “Oh, nibble away,” she muttered. “I’ll deal with you after I break his next fall.”
The tank took a ninety-degree turn and rolled forward. “As the tank inches toward almost certain death, O’Connell manages to get a hand loose using his Navy SEAL training. He quickly reaches for his other hand!”
The tank’s front tracks met the edge of the wall.
The tank teetered in a balancing act with its front half-hovering over the sandbox below.
The tip of the tank’s turret tipped toward the sandbox.
Good-bye tank and Lieutenant O’Connell!
“Oouch!” yelled Gabriella. She clamped her hand to her ear. The dratted sparrow bit her!
“Bull’s eye!” yelled Tommy. He stood up and leapt off the
Gabriella somersaulted underneath Tommy, pushed a toy chopper out of his way, skidded on the ground, and crashed into the garbage can. She shook her head and wished Elysia had assigned her to a sweet little girl—one whose idea of fun included things other than explosives and heights.
The sparrow flew to a branch and cocked its head as though it was admiring its handiwork. Gabriella grabbed her bow and pulled an arrow out of her quiver. The sparrow seemed to sense its danger and wisely flew away.
“Good riddance,” Gabriella muttered, and she turned back to her charge.
Tommy scrambled to his tank, or rather, one of the many parts of what used to be his tank. “O’Connell’s unit continues to search for spare parts to send home to his mother,” Tommy said as he began searching for the late lieutenant’s tragic remains. He recovered both arms and legs, and part of the torso, but no head.
“Tommy, get in here! It’s time for dinner!” a voice called.
Tommy glanced at the house and scowled. “Coming in a minute, Mom!” he yelled. He wrinkled his nose the way he always did when he was thinking. “But Dad says a good soldier never leaves a fallen man behind,” he reminded himself. He resumed pulling apart blades of grass. “They continue to search despite warnings of the enemy approaching.”
“Tommy, now!” his mother called again.
“Tommy!” said Gabriella. “Your psychotic mother is going to come out here with that wooden spoon, and then she’s going to hit you with it, and I’m not allowed to stop that! Now get in there!”
Tommy continued his search.
“Oh, you are so stubborn!” Gabriella found the missing head and flicked it in Tommy’s direction. “There he is! Come on! Go inside!”
Tommy smiled when he saw Lieutenant O’Connell’s head. “The SEAL team has successfully recovered all the parts of their demised teammate!”
“That’s nice! Now go!”
Tommy crawled toward the ruined tank, but a pair of enemy, black high heels halted his recovery mission. He followed the heels up and saw his mother, Lorraine, a slender woman with perfectly highlighted blond hair wearing a business suit that showcased more cleavage than most offices found appropriate. Her manicured fingers were clenching a wooden spoon, and she was glaring at Tommy with what Gabriella called the “Psychotic-Glare-of-Death.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Tommy whimpered.
Too late! Lorraine grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the kitchen. “When I tell you to come, young man, I mean come!” She gave him a good whack on the behind with the spoon, dragged him inside the house, and slammed the door.
Gabriella pulled herself up with her wings and flew through the closed door. She followed Tommy and Lorraine, turning her head and closing her eyes as Lorraine continued Tommy’s punishment. The Code forbade guards from interfering with parental discipline—even if they thought the parent used too much force. Gabriella hated that part of the Code because she knew any guard would agree that Lorraine almost always used too much force.
“…And just for that, I’m not going to let you talk to your father when he calls,” continued Lorraine.
“But, but, but, but… Mom!”
Gabriella watched Tommy’s eyes grow wide with panic. Talking to his dad was Tommy’s favorite part of the day. “Come on, Lorraine,” she said. “Give him a break.”
“No buts,” continued Lorraine. “Now go upstairs and wash up. Joe’s coming over for dinner—remember?—and he doesn’t need to see you dirty like this.”
Tommy’s shoulders dropped in defeat. Gabriella groaned. Joe was Lorraine’s most current boyfriend. Now, admittedly, Gabriella thought that Joe was a pleasant change from her last boyfriend, Vince. Vince always yelled, even when he was sober, which was rare. Joe rarely arrived drunk, but he constantly complained that Tommy was either too dirty or too hyper or too childish. Sometimes it took all of Gabriella’s self-control not to slam a door in his face.
Tommy’s face turned red and crumpled into a scowl. “I wish I lived with Dad!” he yelled.
He wrenched himself out of Lorraine’s grip and raced up the stairs into the bathroom and slammed the door. Gabriella flew in after him and found him sitting on the floor with his back against the door and his knees pulled to his chest. She perched on the floor next to him.
“Look on the bright side,” she said, “at least dinner will be good.”
Tommy sighed. “I wish I lived with Dad.”
“So do I,” said Gabriella.
Tommy finally pulled himself up and dragged his stepping stool in front of the sink. He turned on the faucet and obediently rubbed his hands under the water. Once his hands were clean, he took off his glasses and washed his face. The phone rang as he dried his hands. He cracked the door open and peaked out.
“I’m sorry, Jim,” Gabriella heard Lorraine say. “He can’t talk to you tonight. He’s being punished.”
“He wouldn’t come to dinner when I called him.”
“Look, Jim,” Lorraine said with a sarcastic, sweet voice that Gabriella as well as Jim’s guard, Zane, called “the tone.”
“Oh, dear,” muttered Gabriella. Lorraine only used the tone when she thought up a particularly evil way to get what she wanted.
“I don’t have time for this now,” continued Lorraine, “and you don’t want me to tell my lawyer that you refuse to let me discipline my own son, do you?” She hung up and smiled.
“You evil… evil—!” Gabriella searched for the right words. “You know he wants to talk to Tommy! You’re hurting your own son just to hurt Jim! You… you saber!”
Tommy slammed the door and sank to the floor. Gabriella flew next to her pouting charge and rested her arm on his shoulders. “It’s okay, big guy. He’ll call again tomorrow night. He always does.”
That evening, Gabriella perched on top of Tommy’s dresser and watched as he read his comic books in bed. Normally, she perched on Tommy’s headboard, but Tommy’s new, self-constructed army fort made up of bed sheets impeded her view. She glanced at the clock on the dresser.
“Eight o’clock, big guy,” she said. “Lights out.”
Tommy glanced at the clock and laid his comic books on his bedside table. Then he reached for the lamp and turned it off.
Gabriella smiled. Her little Tommy was such a good—hold on! Her smile turned into a frown as Tommy reached under his pillow and grabbed a flashlight. He turned it on, ducked under his covers, and continued to read.
“Obeying Lorraine would make your life a lot easier.”
Tommy looked up, startled, and he glanced around. Then he snuggled deeper under his covers.
Gabriella laughed. Cherubian voices resonated at a frequency higher than most human ears could detect. Tommy, however, had exceptional hearing for a human. Gabriella often used it to her advantage. More than once, usually as Tommy began to do something insane—such as riding his bicycle off the roof to see if he could make it across the street without hitting the ground—he would stop when he heard the inexplicable sound of Gabriella’s voice. True, she was violating the spirit of the Code, but it never specifically stated that guards could not use their voices to control their charge’s actions. Besides, she rationalized, only a few boys on Earth were as rambunctious as Tommy.
Even though Tommy usually could not hear her, Gabriella found that talking to him kept her from feeling lonely. Lorraine lost her guard long ago when she hardened. Hardening occurred when a human stopped caring about others and began to hate. It was usually irreversible, and once a human hardened, he lost his guard. Without a guard, no one could protect the human mind from the mornachts. Once a mornacht took up residence, a human had little hope of ever softening, and a mornacht-controlled human could do horrible things. Fortunately for Tommy and Gabriella, Lorraine was still mornacht free.
“Tommy, you know that Lorraine will explode if she comes in here and finds you with that flashlight,” Gabriella said, hoping he might sense what she was saying even if he could not hear it distinctly. “You think it hurts you when she hits you? Think about what it does to me to have to watch her do it.”
Tommy continued to read, and Gabriella shrugged in defeat. As much as she hated it, Subchapter S, Item Nine of the Code clearly stated, “No interfering with your charge’s actions. Only serve as a physical barrier between him and unnecessary harm.”
“All right, have it your way,” Gabriella said. “She won’t come in to say goodnight anyway—not with Joe still here.”
Gabriella’s prediction proved true. Two hours later, Tommy finally turned off his flashlight and let it fall to the floor. It rolled into the dresser and caused the lamp, which currently supported the weight of his ad hoc army fort, to tip—right over Tommy’s head—until Gabriella’s nonchalant hand steadied it.
“Not so much as a thank you, eh, Tommy?”
Gabriella smiled as Tommy drifted off into a world of American Heroes and bottle rockets. She crept to the door, nudged it open without a creak, took out her bow, and began shooting arrows down the hall at the old grandfather clock. In only a few seconds, she filled the center of the clock with twenty arrows. She retrieved the arrows and continued her target practice until the early hours of morning when she finally fell asleep alongside Tommy.
Chapter Three: Rumble in the Schoolyard
Zephor flew through the Palace of Ezzer toward the Reconnaissance Coordination Department (RCD) hall. RCD was part of the Weapons and Technology (WET) division of the Elysian military, located deep underground in one of Ezzer’s most top-secret areas. They called it RCD Hall. Everyone knew it existed, but none save a few seraphs and RSOs knew its actual location.
Zephor sighed as he took a left toward Weapons Development. The excitement of finding the child of the Runes had finally worn off, and Octirius still had not managed to convince the Prime Minister to send more troops to the southern front. He flew until he reached a small door tucked away in the corner underneath a stairwell. He opened the door and entered a dark storage closet. He pulled his command crystal out of his breastplate and waved it in front of the wall. A hidden panel opened, and he entered a small, empty room. He flew to an old, wooden door in the back of the room, pointed his command crystal at each corner, and pushed it open to reveal a long, dark, twisting stairway.
This stairway was one of the best-kept secrets in all Elysia. It was one of the fabled palace canafs: passageways that Ezzer and his armies had carved deep into the palace tree trunks long ago. Ezzer realized that the mornachts would expect the cherubians to escape the city by air, so he ordered his soldiers and masons to carve small passageways in the tree trunks. The passageways led to a series of underground tunnels and finally out of the city to safety.
Zephor grazed his hand along the walls as he descended. They were slippery-smooth with a brownish-orange tint, almost like opaque glass. Octirius once told him it was hardened tree sap. Small glow-crystal lanterns illuminated the passage with an eerie, blue-green light. The glow-crystals, like the canafs, were over 3,000 years old, and they did not actually glow. They harnessed all available light and magnified it over 200 times. Glow-crystals were one of the few reminders of peaceful days before the Tri-Millennial War, and Elysia’s scientists had figured out how to replicate the technology only 200 years ago.
Once Zephor reached RCD Hall, he flew to another door and touched the doorknob, then the upper left corner, and lastly the door’s center with his command crystal. The door flew open, and he stared up the staircase that led to Hawk Tower. Hawk Tower was no more a tower than RCD Hall was a hall. It was actually a secret room carved in the top of one of the tallest trees in the City of Ezzer, housing Sephus the Hawk Master.
As Zephor flew up the stairs, he thought about Sephus and wondered how the poor lad managed to climb them day after day without complaining. About thirty years ago, Sephus had lost his wing in a strange accident that should have killed him. Before the accident, Sephus had been a prominent member of RSO in competition with then Corporal Picante for one of the highly coveted promotions to lieutenant. Zephor knew Davian wanted Sephus for the job. However, Picante was a pet favorite of Salla’s, and Zephor remembered Davian and Salla’s frequent, heated discussions over the promotion all too well. One almost escalated into a fight. Fortunately Zephor threw himself between the two of them—a difficult act for Zephor, who would have enjoyed watching the young Davian best the older Salla in a fight. But Davian, despite his prestige, would have still suffered Octirius’ wrath for attacking a seraph, and Zephor preferred Davian fighting mornachts to giving Salla a good thrashing and getting expelled from the military.
Before they resolved the issue, Davian found Sephus unconscious underneath a pile of what was once a storage shed. A week later, Sephus woke up with no recollection of the incident and no left wing, and that resolved the issue. Picante won the promotion, and Sephus was given the position of Hawk Master at Davian’s urging.
Zephor remembered how Sephus first approached the job. He did what Elysia required of him, but little else. His superiors said the accident calmed him down, but Zephor knew better. The accident had not calmed Sephus down; it had almost numbed him—sedated him even.
Zephor finally pulled the lad aside and told him, “Don’t lose the fire, soldier. The fire is your most important weapon. It might dwindle every now and then, but make sure you never let it get snuffed out.”
Soon after that, Sephus turned into the best Hawk Master Elysia had ever seen. Zephor shook his head; his own fire had almost dwindled to the point of no recovery. He sighed again as he reached the door to Hawk Tower and wished more than ever for a week off.
Zephor walked in and saw a soldier with muscular legs listening to the soft caws of King Arias of the hawks.
Once Sephus saw Zephor, he saluted and knelt before him.
Arias simply nodded.
Zephor carefully explained the situation concerning the boy Tommy to both of them, leaving out the reason for the boy’s importance. Arias agreed to assign a secret hawk to Tommy and alert Elysia immediately if anything unusual happened to the boy. Sephus agreed to alert Zephor in person of anything needing urgent attention. After their conversation, Sephus walked to a map of Earth that marked the locations of the hawks positioned on various humans and guards and began to mark a new hawk in Tommy’s hometown.
“No, Sephus,” said Zephor. “Do not put this child on any map—not now or ever. Do you understand?”
“Not ever, sir?”
“Not ever,” repeated Zephor.
Sephus nodded, but Zephor knew he was pondering the situation. Sephus was, after all, one of Davian’s men, and all of Davian’s men knew how to think.
“Just do it,” Zephor said. He wanted Sephus concentrating on things other than Tommy.
“Yes, sir,” said Sephus. Zephor patted him on the shoulder and flew back to the Command Chamber.
“Wake up, Tommy!” Lorraine yelled through the door.
Tommy groaned, rolled over, and covered his head with his pillow. Gabriella rubbed her eyes and cursed herself for practicing archery too late the night before.
A few minutes later, Lorraine opened the door and marched in.
“Good morning, Lorraine,” said Gabriella. “Are you planning on taking the car or the broom to work today?”
Lorraine walked over to Tommy, yanked his pillow out from under his head and turned on the light, shouting, “Wake up, kid!”
“Must be the broom!” continued Gabriella.
“Downstairs in fifteen minutes!”
Tommy groaned again.
“Don’t be late!” Lorraine turned and walked out.
Tommy groaned once more and fell back asleep.
After fifteen minutes, Gabriella flew close to her sleeping charge’s ear and yelled, “Wake up, Tommy!”
Tommy woke up, looked at the clock, and uttered a loud curse. He jumped out of bed and tripped over the flashlight he had dropped the night before.
Gabriella refused to push it out of the way. Instead, she crossed her arms and said, “Serves you right for using language like that.”
Tommy raced to his chest of drawers and grabbed a shirt and some jeans. He somehow donned both articles of clothing while he laced up his shoes. He grabbed his glasses and reached inside a cedar box on his dresser. His hand came out empty, and he looked around the room.
“Where are they?” he asked himself. He scampered to the bookshelf.
“No, not there,” said Gabriella. “They wouldn’t have fallen there.”
He began to search under the fort.
“No, you built that two days ago. Wait a minute. The clothes! The clothes!” She flew up to his ear and yelled. “Check the dirty clothes!”
Tommy rummaged through the clothes and broke into a smile once he retrieved what Gabriella knew was his most coveted possession in the world: his dad’s dog tags. Gabriella remembered the day his dad gave them to Tommy. It was the day the judge handed down the custody ruling. Tommy had burst into tears when he found out he had to live with his mother. As Jim hugged Tommy right before they parted, he pulled his dog tags out of his pocket.
“Tommy,” he said, “do you know what these are?”
“They’re,” sniff, “your,” sniff, “dog tags.”
“That’s right, Tommy. When I was in the Navy, I always had to wear these babies. They were the Navy’s way of identifying us. If one of us died in combat, they would know right away that we were theirs. We had to wear them all the time, even in times of peace, and even if we went off base for leave. All the time. You see, Tommy, it didn’t matter if we were at peace or at war or on base or on foreign soil, we still belonged to the Navy.”
Jim placed the dog tags around Tommy’s neck and said, “Tommy, you’ll always be my son. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, you’ll always be my son, and I’ll always love you.”
Gabriella watched Tommy throw the dog tags around his neck and tuck them under his shirt. Tommy bolted out of the room and raced downstairs. Gabriella raced after him, wishing again that Tommy lived with Jim.
Gabriella loved school. Tommy had to stay seated for at least six hours, giving her an opportunity to socialize with other cherubians. She laughed as she watched Tommy kick his legs back and forth and rock in his seat as he waited for class to begin.
“Lyla, where’s Jarod?” she asked a nearby guard.
“Ashley’s home with the flu,” said Lyla, referring to Jarod’s charge. “How’s Tommy Terror?”
“He’s in one piece, so I’m certainly not complaining.”
“No stitches yet?”
Gabriella smiled. “None. If he makes it through today, he’ll break his record of thirty-seven days without a trip to the emergency room.”
“What was that last trip for again?”
“Second degree burns on his back.”
Lyla laughed. “That’s right. How did you explain that to your sergeant?”
Gabriella shrugged. “How was I supposed to simultaneously stop a bottle rocket and push things out of the way of a falling child who thought the rocket’s propulsion would send him flying to the top of the roof from the swing-set? He said I—oh, here she comes.”
Mrs. Gatch marched in with her white hair pulled back in its usual bun and those thin, tight lips that always tempted Gabriella to push a quarter through them just to see what would happen. She scrawled Tommy’s name on the chalkboard because he looked like he was thinking about talking, and then began the lesson—completely ignorant the barrage of insults Gabriella sent her way.
Mrs. Gatch delivered lessons about double digits in perfect monotones, while Gabriella and the other guards chattered away until the school bell rang, symbolizing the end of restful bliss and the beginning of the apocalypse called recess. Recess, a time when eighty hyperactive children comingle on a playground full of injury-causing, metal contraptions. Recess, the only one-word oxymoron. The guards’ wings, as well as the teachers’ voices, always ached by the end of recess.
After lunch, sounds of children playing on the playground reached all the way to Lemon Head’s office. (Lemon Head was Principal Porter’s nickname—unauthorized of course. Gabriella never knew if the nickname arose from his blond hair or his sour expression, but it was universal. Even the teachers used it.) Clouds covered the sky, and a crisp, late fall wind blew icy mist across the playground. Gabriella pulled a black cloak out of her pack, which she remembered to bring after yesterday’s dreary weather, and wrapped it around her wings and shoulders.
The girls played on the swings and sat in big circles slapping each other’s hands in strange rhythms and singing silly songs. The most skilled girls could slap each other’s hands crosswise, hit their thighs, and grab each other’s pinkies without losing the beat. Gabriella chuckled at their simple games and shot a wistful glance at the girls’ guards, who were trying their best to stay awake. Girls were very strange, but very safe. No girl ever showed up in the emergency room with a broken pinkie because she and her partner slapped each other’s hands too fast.
The boys, on the other hand, always played a contact sport at recess, and today’s bone-breaker was soccer. The boys rushed up and down the field, kicking madly at the black and white ball on the ground and rejoicing at the rare moment when someone actually made contact with the ball. Most of the time, they ended up kicking each other. Gabriella watched the boys’ guards who always ended up acting like a strange combination of a coach and a little league parent.
“Jack, watch him,” yelled one. “He’s quick!”
“Billy, are you blind?” yelled another. “It was right there! Keep your eyes open!”
“Oh, so you think you’re a big guy, eh, Josh? You kick at my Ritchie again, and I’ll distract your guard at an inopportune time!” That was Aaron, Ritchie’s guard. Gabriella considered Aaron one of the best guards she ever met, and she knew Elysia would promote him to seraph some day. He took more of a personal interest in his charges than most guards. He defended them as much as the Code permitted, and he made it his business to seek out every loophole in the Code.
Gabriella turned her attention to her own charge, playing alone in the sandbox. Her Tommy cared little for soccer. He was much smaller than the other boys, and they usually ended up mistaking his head for the soccer ball. Tommy instead preferred to set up intricate forts for his American Heroes. As Tommy’s sniper had the enemy lookout’s night vision helmet in his sights, Gabriella’s arch nemesis, Mikey, the school bully, and his entourage of pitiful wannabes crept up behind Tommy’s little insurrection. Mikey was almost five-feet tall—a height unheard of in second grade. Granted, it was also unheard of for a school to hold a boy back twice in the second grade. Mikey had earned the distinct honor of being the youngest human ever to harden in Earth’s history. He lost his guard at the age of five. Fortunately no mornacht had taken residence in Mikey—probably because he was too dumb. The mornachts valued efficiency, and they rarely found taking residence in an idiot efficient. They also knew Mikey could not cause any major damage until he grew up, and damage—especially damage that hurt humans—was their primary goal.
Mikey smiled and crossed his arms. “Hey, Tiny Tommy. Playing with your dolls again?”
Gabriella grabbed her sword hilt out of instinct and then released it in disgust, remembering her sword could not harm humans. She shouted instead “Why don’t you leave him alone, you big…overgrown …zit!”
“My, my Gabby, those are tough words from a guard of your caliber.”
Gabriella spun around and scowled at Aaron. “At least my charge isn’t following Mikey around like a love-sick girl!”
“I know, I know! I’ve been trying to knock some sense into him. Yesterday, when Mikey threw a rock at him, I didn’t even block it. You’re lucky Gabby.” Aaron nodded at Tommy. “He’s a good boy.” Aaron noticed Tommy’s newest bruise, compliments of Lorraine. “Accident prone, but basically a good boy.”
“Oh, look,” continued Mikey. “Here’s a little dollhouse for your dolls. Let’s see how it holds up to enemy attack.” With that, he kicked the carefully constructed fort until it was nothing but a sand dune. Then he picked Tommy up by his collar.
“Sorry, Gabby,” said Aaron. “Looks like it’s going to be a tough day.”
Gabriella landed on the ground in front of Tommy and prepared to protect him from as many impending blows as possible.
“You know what we do to little boys like you who play with dolls?” said Mikey. “We teach them a lesson. Don’t we, fellas?”
The other boys nodded, and the lesson began. Gabriella tried her best to stop the blows, but unfortunately they used their fists instead of sticks or stones, and she could not stop fists. Once they finished, Mikey picked up Tommy’s glasses and broke them in half. He threw them at Tommy, but Gabriella flicked them away.
“Tiny Tommy Crybaby!” Mikey yelled.
The other boys laughed and joined in. “Crybaby, crybaby, wah, wah, wah!”
Their war cry ignited Gabriella’s temper. She picked up a rock and prepared to hurl it directly at Mikey’s temple. Aaron’s sword stopped her hand. “Can’t do that Gabby,” he said. “Chapter N, Line Fifty-Nine, ‘No attacking a human without direct orders’.”
Gabriella glared at Aaron and prepared to launch the rock at Mikey again. This time, Aaron flew in her path. “Gabby, Tommy doesn’t need you court-martialed. Elysia will probably assign Lucas to him, and he’s way out of practice.”
He pointed at Lucas, a frail, sniveling guard who smiled sweetly as he presided over the imaginary tea party below. Lucas guarded Jennifer the Perfect, Jennifer the Quiet, Jennifer the Tea Party Queen. Little Jennifer had barely experienced a paper cut, and Lucas constantly bragged about her current injury-free streak of 115 days.
“Tommy would die in a week,” added Aaron.
Gabriella let the rock fall out of her hand just as Mikey turned and walked away. The other boys followed, and their guards flew behind them and scolded them for their unkind behavior. “I hope Ritchie gets the flu and dies!” Gabriella yelled as Aaron flew past.
“He didn’t really help, Gabby!”
“Oh, great! He’s nothing but a neutral faun! A nymph! A gnome!”
Aaron threw up his arms. “I can’t do anything with him. He won’t listen to his own mother, much less me.” He turned to his charge, who struggled to keep up with the rest of the gang. “If you keep this up, I’m going to stay out of your next tee-ball game!”
Gabriella knelt in front of Tommy and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. “It’s okay, big guy. You’ll beat all of them on the next test.”
Tommy wiped away a stray tear and searched for his American Heroes as best he could without his glasses. Gabriella looked at his growing pile of action figures. One, two, three—he had found six of them.
“He should have seven,” she muttered. “Who are you missing? Who are you missing? Ah! Admiral Jackson.” The admiral was Tommy’s favorite piece. “You’re not going to take it well if you don’t find him, are you?” She landed on the ground and began searching through the sand for the admiral.
Tommy wiped his bloody nose with his arm. “I’b dot a crybaby,” he sniffed, and he wiped away another tear.
“Don’t cry on me,” Gabriella said. “They’ll only laugh at you more if you cry.”
Tommy started to wail.
“We’ll find it, big guy. Don’t worry!” She found the lost admiral under a rock and threw it in Tommy’s direction.
Tommy’s eyes brightened instantly. He wiped more blood from his nose as he picked up the action figure. “Adbiral Jacksod and his teab of SEAL warriors survive yet adother vicious attack.” He gathered his men into his knapsack and struggled to stand up. Then he grimaced and grabbed his wrist.
Gabriella glanced at the teachers, who had missed the commotion, as usual. She rolled her eyes. “If I did my job as well as you, I’d be cleaning the stables of Azernoth for a year!” she yelled.
A bird sang in a nearby tree. Gabriella narrowed her eyes. It was a sparrow, and she would not be surprised if it was the same horrible sparrow that bit her the day before. She grabbed the rock she had dropped earlier and threw it at the sparrow with surprising strength and accuracy. The bird squawked—and alerted the teachers to Tommy’s predicament. They ran over to Tommy and helped him stand up. After hearing what happened, they rounded up Mikey and his cronies and sent them to Lemon Head’s office.
As the teachers fawned over poor Tommy, Gabriella detected a smell that sent chills down her spine—the putrid, burning, sulfur smell that indicated one of two things: either Mr. Fulton’s chemistry class had a little too much fun earlier or a mornacht was lurking somewhere in the vicinity. She scanned the area, and her eyes rested in the tree where the sparrow still perched, only now a decrepit monster with a pair of withered, flightless wings and leathery skin that looked as though it had dried up and decomposed ages ago sat next to the sparrow. Its eyes feasted on Tommy.
Gabriella sounded a blast on her trumpet, tossed off her cloak, grabbed her bow, and took aim. Unfortunately the Code forbade her to fire until the mornacht crept within fifty feet of her charge—a side effect of one of Seraph Salla’s peace accords. The mornachts loved the rule and often circled a human from fifty-one feet just to frustrate, or even distract, his guard.
The guards unsheathed their swords and joined her. “What’s up, Gabby?” asked Aaron. “Did someone—?” Aaron stopped as soon as the sulfuric odor hit his nose. “Where is it?”
“In that tree,” Gabriella said without taking her eyes off the mornacht. Soon the other guards arrived ready for battle.
“It’s okay,” Aaron said to the rest of the guards. “He’s just a scout, and a nasty looking one at that.” Scouts rarely attacked; they only watched and reported. “Gabby’s got her eye on him, too.”
The guards relaxed. Gabriella’s impeccable aim won every archery contest they ever held when Mrs. Gatch’s classes were too boring.
The scout realized his presence was known. He leapt out of the tree and bounded away.
“How long was he there?” asked Lyla.
“Probably a while,” said Lucas. “The wind has been blowing the other direction, and most of you were too busy worrying about Tiny Tommy Crybaby to pay attention.”
Gabriella shoved her arrow back in her quiver and donned her cloak, this time making sure to fit her wings through its wing-holes. She snapped it securely ensuring she could reach for her arrows if the mornacht decided to return. “I’m surprised you, of all cherubians, found a tea party so intriguing that you missed its foul stench, Lucas.”
“Um, guys?” interrupted Lyla. “Our charges are about to leave.” She pointed to the children, who had lined up and were beginning to walk back inside. The guards quickly turned and flew after them.
“What do you think it wants,” Aaron asked Gabriella as they flew back.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s probably scouting Mikey,” said Lyla. “The boy’s a walking nightmare.”
“Great,” said Aaron. “Just what we need. Mikey with a Morvenian sidekick.”
Gabriella kept her disagreement to herself. She suspected that the scout was after something else, and she hoped it was anything but her Tommy.
A hawk perched on a pine branch above the schoolyard and watched as the mornacht finally left his sight. He let out four loud caws. Soon another hawk landed next to him. He told the new hawk all he had seen. The second hawk jumped off the branch and soared high into the air and on to the City of Ezzer.
Chapter Four: Mornachts and Monsters
Davian led his unit through the Morvenian wilderness, taking care to stay near the shelter of trees. He began to worry as he flew. Aside from a horde of mornachts his unit managed to avoid with ease, the past two days had been uneventful. They had not even seen a vulture in the distance. To Davian that meant one of two things: either the area was extremely remote, or they were less than a day away from trouble, for he rarely ever experienced more than three days of peace in a row on a mission.
Suddenly Davian raised his hand and signaled for his unit to stop. Something—or rather the lack of something—caught his eye. The unit dropped to the ground and waited for further instructions. Davian listened carefully, but heard nothing. He looked across the plain that lay to their right and saw nothing. Absolutely nothing, and that was a problem. No birds flew overhead or sang (although he welcomed the change, for Morvenian birds have singing voices akin to frogs, only louder).
He also did not hear any bloodsuckers, and that was another problem. Bloodsuckers stayed as far away as possible from mornachts for two reasons. First, a mornacht’s blood exploded once it left its body, and too many bloodsuckers had met gruesome deaths after gorging themselves on mornacht only to explode three minutes later. Second, not even bloodsuckers could handle the mornachts’ putrid odor for long periods of time. And right now, Davian did not hear any bloodsuckers. Not one.
He sniffed, checking the air for a hint of sulfur that might indicate the presence of a mornacht. An easy task—had he been in Elysia, for Elysia smelled nothing like mornacht, and a well-trained RSO could smell a mornacht a quarter mile away on a clear, windy day. Morvenia, however, always smelled like mornacht—even without mornachts around. Davian thought he detected an increase of sulfur, but he wanted confirmation. He sniffed again and nodded to Eric, who sniffed and nodded to Marcus, who sniffed and nodded back at Davian. Davian signaled, and the unit low-hovered into the woods and hopped into the boughs of one of the trees where not even a vulture could see them on a clear day.
Not a moment too soon!
A poisonwood arrow narrowly missed Josephi just before he reached his branch. Their situation was more perilous than they thought, for they were deep within uncharted Morvenian territory. Elysia had actually assigned the unit to chart the area, hence their reason for enduring Josephi, the mapper. Davian knew nothing about what lay to his left or right, be it military strongholds or barren wasteland. Although he tried to keep to higher ground, a few hills still blocked his view of the landscape, and tall grass that could conceal a good horde of mornachts filled the plain. Davian also did not know if the mornachts had seen them and recognized them as cherubians, or if they simply thought they were a herd of wild boars.
Therein lay the difficulty in the decision making. Davian preferred to stay undetected—a key to not only his unit’s, but also Elysia’s survival. Elysia had been sending special missions such as these into Morvenia for the past 500 years in hopes of gathering information to help plan an attack. The mornachts, so far, were blissfully ignorant of such missions, and both Davian and Elysia wanted it to stay that way.
Fortunately RSOs were masters of secrecy. Davian’s unit could function without any verbal communication, and Davian, Eric, and Marcus had fought together for so long that they rarely used the detailed RSO signals that took almost a year to learn. Davian nodded to Eric, who had the keenest eyes of the three, and the captain soared along the trunk of the tree until he reached the top. There, hidden amongst the thick branches and leaves, Eric grabbed his spyglass and signaled to Davian.
Nine to the left. Sixteen to the right, thought Davian as he watched Eric’s hands. All infiltrators. He grasped his crossbow. Four more down the middle with six…wolves? Davian waited until Eric stopped signaling and sighed. His unit of five needed to eliminate nineteen infiltrators and six wolves—secretly. A difficult task, especially the secret part. Davian quickly relayed the signals to the others and sent Snead up higher to give him a better shot.
A howl pierced the air—a haunting howl that stood Davian’s feathers on end. Two more followed. Soon, six black wolves bounded toward them, followed by all nineteen mornachts. Eric clasped a sunstar, Snead and Josephi cocked their bows, and Marcus clenched his sword hilts as they waited for Davian’s final command.
Davian waited to signal until the infiltrators and wolves reached the edge of the wood. Snead, Josephi, and Eric fired at the mornachts while Davian and Marcus jumped on top of the wolves with their swords. Davian would have preferred to use his crossbow, but cherubian sunbolts, just like their arrows and sunstars, had crystal tips that sent pulses of concentrated light through the body, killing the tissue instantly.
Light-crystal technology worked fine on mornachts, whose exploding carcasses made forensic study impossible. The wolves did not explode, however, and any mornacht who might stumble across the dead wolves and inspect the wounds would realize that cherubians were in Morvenia. Davian and Marcus, therefore, took care of the wolves (and any unfortunate mornachts who got in their way) using swords and daggers. They found the going tough at first, for Morvenian wolves stood over four feet-tall, and the shortest of them reached Davian’s rib cage. Davian and Marcus kept their backs to each other and slashed away. The wolves’ only weapons were their sharp teeth and claws, and within minutes all six lay dead on the ground along with seven of their masters.
Davian and Marcus flew to help handle the remaining mornachts and found the last one jumping between a few boulders as Eric, Josephi, and Snead shot at it but kept missing. Davian huffed with impatience, pulled out his knife, and settled the matter with a flick of his wrist.
“We’re not done yet!” he growled to the three of them as they gaped at his accurate hurl.
Davian was referring to the trickiest part of their work: hiding the crime, and they needed to work quickly before the mornachts exploded. Eric, Josephi, and Snead piled the mornachts together to disguise the number of dead. (One crater looked less suspicious than nine.) Marcus re-slashed the wolves with the Morvenian swords (which were much more ragged than their own) and spread Morvenian blood around their mouths to make it look as though the wolves had attacked their masters.
Davian dragged the mornacht he had killed with his dagger to the pile, but just before he could throw it in, he squinted at something that gleamed around the mornacht’s neck. He looked closely and saw a small, sleek crystal attached to a chain.
It was a cherubian command crystal.
He yanked it off the mornacht’s neck and put it in his pocket, wondering which officer the mornacht had killed and robbed. He heaved the mornacht into the pile of other mornachts and ducked out of the way just as they exploded. They then set about scanning the area for misfired sunstars and arrows before they left what looked like a wolf attack on one or two mornachts.
As they flew away, Davian thought more about the command crystal. What if the gnome’s drekels and the command crystal were more than just stolen property?
The school nurse called Tommy’s mom the minute she saw his crooked nose and swollen wrist. “Your mother is coming right away,” she said to Tommy, who sat on a bench holding a bloody wad of tissues to his nose with his good hand.
Lemon Head’s office door opened, and seven sullen children trooped out. “Please tell me they have to do more than write, ‘I will not fight at recess,’ 100 times,” Gabriella said to Aaron as he passed.
Aaron snickered. “Don’t worry. Ole’ Lemon Head took care of them.”
Gabriella smiled with satisfaction.
“They have to write, ‘I will not fight at recess,’ 300 times.”
Gabriella’s smile disappeared. “At this rate, he’ll have them writing, ‘I will not shoot my semi-automatic at unarmed classmates during lunch hour,’ 500 times by next year!”
“Calm down, warrior. I wasn’t finished. They also have to write Tommy a heartfelt letter of apology and—here’s the kicker—they each have to do twelve hours of cafeteria cleanup with Mr. Wheaton.” Aaron grinned.
The Code prohibited guards from punishing their charges, and they always enjoyed watching them receive a well-deserved comeuppance. Mr. Wheaton was the school custodian, and he approached his job with unusual fervor. He was a retired army sergeant, and he cleaned the school just as though he was still in the service. Gabriella was sure that if she flew to Mr. Wheaton’s house, she could bounce pennies up and down on his bed. Cleaning up the cafeteria with Mr. Wheaton was akin to boot camp. She calmed down, satisfied that Lemon Head had given the grievances brought upon her charge due justice.
Below, the boys joked around and shoved each other as they prepared to return to class—except Ritchie, who concentrated on kicking the nearby chair leg. Ritchie was the runt of Mikey’s litter. He also had dyslexia, and the other boys picked on him, too. Unlike Tommy, Ritchie stooped to whatever level it took to fit in, and the boys abused his willingness as much as possible.
“Well, at least yours looks sorry,” said Gabriella.
Aaron nodded. “Oh, he’s very sorry. In fact, I’ll probably have to spend the rest of the day with him sulking, thank you very much. Would you believe he actually likes Tommy? Unfortunately, he just bends to peer pressure far too often.” He patted Ritchie, whose gaze shifted from his feet to the upper window, on the head. “But we’re working on that, aren’t we, slugger?”
Ritchie sniffled a little and turned his head to hide his embarrassing display of girlishness from the other boys.
Lemon Head’s door opened again, and Mikey walked out, followed by the great sourpuss himself. Gabriella turned to Lemon Head’s guard. “What happened?”
“Two weeks suspension and a month of cafeteria clean up with Mr. Wheaton.”
Aaron and Gabriella exchanged glances.
“Won’t help,” said Aaron. “Not even Mr. Wheaton could knock sense into that one.”
“But that’s still two weeks I won’t have to worry about Tommy getting beat up,” Gabriella said. “Well, except by her,” she added as Lorraine marched into the office.
After raising a huge ruckus with Lemon Head’s administrative assistant about the school’s poor playground controls and disciplinary policies, Lorraine grabbed Tommy by the good arm and half-dragged him to the car. Gabriella floated along behind them. She rolled her eyes as Lorraine mumbled something about always having to leave work to take Tommy to the emergency room—along with a bunch of other mumbo-jumbo Gabriella had already heard countless times.
Lorraine ended her lecture with, “Next time, be more careful,” which infuriated Gabriella. She scrunched in the back seat of Lorraine’s red sports car, and the three of them sped off to the hospital.
At the hospital, Gabriella perched on the back of the waiting room sofa next to Tommy until the nurse called his name. The nurse led them to a private room, where they waited for the doctor. Lorraine plopped down on a chair and grabbed a five-month-old fashion magazine, while Tommy struggled to climb on the hospital bed.
An hour later, Lorraine remained engrossed in the magazine, and Tommy rocked back and forth on the bed trying to see how far he could fall forward without falling off. Suddenly, a commotion outside the door caught their attention.
“Sir, you can’t go back there!” said a voice.
“He’s my son, and I’m going back to see him!” snapped a man.
“I’m sorry, sir, but hospital policy allows only one family member in the emergency room with a patient at a time, and your wife is already in there with him!”
“She’s not my wife, and I really don’t care about your hospital policy!”
The door swung open, and Jim barged in. He stood just a little over six-feet tall, and he still retained most of the muscle he had developed during his Navy SEAL days. Gabriella always thought Jim’s most striking feature was his eyes. They were bright blue, piercing, and alert, and they shone with a special kindness—except when Jim was angry, as he was now.
Zane, Jim’s guard, flew close behind Jim, scolding him for his rude behavior.
“Hey, Zane,” teased Gabriella. “Trouble with the old man?”
“He’s the most stubborn thing I’ve ever seen, save the bottom feeder next to you,” said Zane, nodding at Lorraine.
“Dad!” yelled Tommy. He jumped off the bed and ran over to his father. Jim picked him up and gave him a big hug and their secret handshake. “I’b so glad you’re here.”
“So am I, son.” He gave Tommy another hug. “What happened to you?”
“Ah, it’s a log story. How did you kdow I was here?”
Jim glanced at his ex-wife, who remained engrossed in her magazine.
“Well, Tommy, that’s a very, very good question,” he said. He turned to Lorraine, and his voice revealed a hint of sarcasm. “Dear, isn’t that an interesting question?”
Lorraine turned the magazine page and mumbled, “What are you getting at, Jim?”
“Could I talk with you outside for a minute?” he asked with a picture-perfect smile frozen on his face.
Lorraine huffed and set her magazine down.
Jim set Tommy down.
“We’ll be right back, son,” he said.
Jim’s frozen smile almost cracked as he held the door open for Lorraine. Neither of them saw Tommy and Gabriella peek out the door.
His smile disappeared. “Why didn’t you call me?” he whispered.
“How was I supposed to call you?”
Jim grabbed her purse, retrieved her cell phone, and waved it in her face. “Lorraine, what’s this?”
Lorraine crossed her arms.
“It’s a cell phone, Lorraine! Do you know what people do with cell phones?”
Lorraine rolled her eyes.
“They call people on them! And get this! Cell phones are especially useful during emergencies—like when your kid has to go to the hospital!”
“I had a lot to do!”
“You had a lot to do? Like what? Sit in a hospital emergency room for an hour taking a self-help test on whether or not you’re content? I would never have even found out about this incident if the school nurse hadn’t seen the ‘Please call both parents in case of an emergency’ footnote in Tommy’s file, which I made the principal’s secretary write last time this happened! The time I didn’t find out about the thirty-two stitches until it was my weekend to watch him! Remember that?”
“I was going to tell you about it when you called!”
“Were you? Before or after you invented another stupid reason he couldn’t talk to me?”
“He was being punished last night, and I was going to tell you!”
“Let’s review this again, because obviously I didn’t communicate it properly to you last time.” Jim adopted his best schoolteacher voice. “Tommy is my son, and I want to be informed immediately when he is severely injured. Severely injured includes, but is not limited to, things such as broken bones, high fevers, and trips to the emergency room!”
“Are you finished, yet?”
“He’s my kid, too, Lorraine. I want to be there for him when he needs me, and so far, the only people in this world who have succeeded in keeping me from doing that are you and that piece of pond scum who calls himself an attorney.”
Lorraine glared at Jim and grabbed her cell phone just as the doctor joined them.
“Excuse me, folks, but I’m going to have to ask that one of you go back to the waiting room,” he said.
Both Jim and Lorraine crossed their arms and waited for the other to volunteer.
“I’m his mother. He needs his mother at a time like this.”
“Oh, really?” yelled Zane. “And when did you develop that bit of maternal instinct? Before or after you found out Tommy was worth a car payment a month in child support?” Zane pointed at Lorraine and complained to Gabriella through the open door. “She doesn’t want to be here! Look at her face! Look in her eyes! She’d leave right now except she knows how bad my Jimmy wants to stay!”
Gabriella tried to calm Zane down, and Jim tried to state his own case to the doctor. “I’m his father, and he needs his father at a time like this.”
The doctor began showing his impatience. “Look, I’m going to grab this child’s x-rays. When I return, one of you needs to be out in the waiting room.”
After the doctor left, Jim tried to negotiate a truce with Lorraine. “All right. If I go to the waiting room, can I take Tommy out for hamburgers and ice cream tonight?”
“Jim, it’s a school night. He can’t stay out that late.”
“A school night?” said Zane. “It’s three o’clock in the afternoon!”
“It’ll just be an hour,” said Jim.
“Jim, it’s too complicated. No!”
“Too complicated?” said Zane. “Too complicated? It’s only complicated because you don’t want my Jimmy to get any happiness out of life you… you—!”
“Zane!” said Gabriella through the door. “You’re just as bad as the old man!”
Jim crossed his arms. “Lorraine, I haven’t seen my own son in two weeks—!”
“Oh, Jim,” Lorraine said with a sinister smile.
“Oh, no!” Zane said. He motioned for Jim to back away. “It’s the tone! Run, Jimmy! Before she blames you for—”
“You don’t want me to tell the doctor that those bruises on Tommy were from you and not the boys at school, do you?” Lorraine whispered.
“You know I didn’t touch him!”
Lorraine held her phone in Jim’s helpless face. “Go back to the waiting room, Jim, or the next time you see Tommy, you’ll be in a room with a great, big two-way mirror.” She whipped around and sauntered back into the room with Tommy while Jim stood in the hallway, trying to control his trembling fists.
Tommy scrambled back to the hospital bed and glared at his mother. “Dad did dot hurt be, Bobby,” he said.
Lorraine grabbed her magazine and sat down. “Tommy, if you say anything about what you just heard, I’ll tell the court that your dad did hurt you, and they’ll never let you see him again.”
The doctor finally returned. He apologized for the wait and flipped through Tommy’s x-rays. Then he grabbed a torture device disguised as a pair of tongs.
“Hold still for just a minute, son,” he said, and much to the pain and displeasure of little Tommy, the doctor pushed his nose back in place. The doctor declared Tommy’s wrist sprained, wrapped it in a splint, wrote out a prescription for pain, and sent Tommy and his mother on their way.
Jim was waiting for them when they came out. Tommy ran up to him and gave him a hug. “Cad I please get ice-creab with Dad?” he asked his mother.
“No, Tommy. It’s a school night.”
“But, but Bobby!” Tommy latched onto Jim’s leg in a death-grip. “You haved’t let be see dad id two weeks!”
“Tommy!” Lorraine warned.
Tommy turned his pleading black eyes to his father. “But you said we could get ice-creab!”
“We’ll go out for ice cream when you come over next week, son,” Jim said helplessly. Gabriella knew every word pained him. “Besides, you need to rest that arm.”
Tommy frowned. He released his father’s leg and gave him one last hug. Then he turned to his mother and said, “I hate you.”
Every guard in the waiting room gasped and stared at Tommy to see if he really meant it or if he said it for effect. Gabriella watched Tommy with alarm. Hatred was the first step toward hardening, and she knew Tommy rarely said anything for effect. She looked at the other guards, who stared at her accusingly.
“But she’s hard!” Gabriella said pointing at Lorraine. “She’s an evil, hard, awful woman, and—and—I hate her, too!”
“Me, too!” added Zane.
Gabriella turned back to Tommy, who continued to glare at Lorraine without remorse. “Please take it back, big guy. Please.”
Lorraine lifted her hand to slap Tommy across the face.
Jim grabbed her wrist just in time. “You deserve it,” he said in a low voice.
“Come on, Jimmy! Let her go!” said Zane. He wrapped arms around Jim in a bear hug. “Let her go. She’ll just take you to court again. Come on, Jimmy! You ever want Tommy to live with you again? Let her go.”
To Zane’s relief, Jim released Lorraine’s wrist. He leaned forward and whispered, “I hope, to all good heaven, that those bruises I see on him really are from the kids at school and not from you, or there will be hell to pay.”
Zane sent Gabriella a questioning glance.
Gabriella lowered her eyes. “I can’t stop her, Zane, and she doesn’t have a guard who can talk sense in her ear. I can only absorb most of the pain if she uses a paddle or a belt or that stupid spoon, but she usually doesn’t take time to get those.”
Zane glared at Lorraine. “Jimmy needs a better lawyer.”
Lorraine narrowed her eyes. “Don’t accuse me of stuff like that, Jim. Last time I checked, you were the one with the temper.” She grabbed Tommy’s good hand and yanked him toward the door.
“He’s got the temper?” Zane yelled. “He’s got the temper? She says that like she’s the icon of calm rationality!”
Gabriella followed Tommy and whispered in his ear about how he did not hate his mother and how hating someone was wrong. “You just don’t like the things she does. It’s okay not to like those things.”
Once they piled inside the car, Gabriella watched Jim trudge back to his truck. He slid in the front seat and started punching the steering wheel multiple times. She saw Zane sitting in the passenger seat offering unheard words of comfort to his charge as his ex-wife drove his son away and out of his life for another week.
Unfortunately, the court only allowed Jim to see his son every third weekend and holidays. Tommy often asked his parents why he could not see his father more often. His father would only say that the courts felt that children should stay with their mothers, and his mother changed the subject. Gabriella knew better. Lorraine had simply retained the better lawyer. She also knew that Lorraine insisted on keeping Tommy out of spite and enjoyed her child support more than she enjoyed her son.
Gabriella remembered the divorce vividly. She remembered Zane telling her how much money Jim shelled out to his lawyer, begging him to try every loophole so he could keep Tommy. She remembered the weight Jim lost during the ordeal, as well as the forlorn look in his eyes when the judge awarded Lorraine custody.
Gabriella also had other memories. She remembered Lorraine’s guard’s delight when Elysia reassigned him. She remembered Lorraine threatening Jim with other false charges of child abuse and her sinister laugh when she talked on the phone with her lawyer. Gabriella remembered cringing with anger when she realized that Lorraine enjoyed tearing her ex-husband apart.
Tommy often asked his parents why they separated. His mom would make some sneering remark about his father. His father would tell him that sometimes things just don’t work out. Gabriella knew the truth. Tommy’s dad was a nice guy who married a woman with the heart of a saber. She left him for another man five boyfriends ago. Gabriella was not sure how long the current boyfriend, Joe, would last but she and Zane had placed bets on two more months.
That evening, Lorraine tucked Tommy into bed. “Go to sleep,” she said. Then, as if she sensed her son’s anger, she bent down and kissed Tommy’s forehead. Her affection came too late. Tommy turned his head away and refused to speak.
“Is that anyway to treat your mother, Tommy?”
Tommy said nothing, so Gabriella filled in for him. “What did you expect, Lorraine? Hugs and kisses?”
“Tommy, I’m talking to you.”
Tommy again said nothing.
“Yeah, and this is the first time you’ve actually talked to him without a lecture,” Gabriella added.
“Fine, be that way.” Lorraine said. She spun around and trounced out.
Gabriella followed her. “You’re destroying your own son, and you don’t even care, do you?” she yelled as Lorraine walked down the hall. “Just as long as you get your child support every month! And why haven’t you broken up with Joe, yet? He’s not even half the man Jim is!” Gabriella stopped once Lorraine turned the corner. She turned around and flew back to Tommy.
“Sorry for yelling at your mom like that, big guy, but I’m about to lose twenty drekels—to Zane of all cherubians—because your mother refuses to break up with that Joe!” Gabriella sighed. “Zane’s right. Joe’s rich, and your mother has a thing for money.”
Gabriella stopped her soliloquy long enough to look down and notice that her charge was crying. “There, there now,” she said. “Don’t cry, big guy.” She flew over and sat on the bed next to Tommy.
“Dobody will ever like be,” Tommy said to himself. “I’b just Tidy Tobby Cry Baby.”
“No you’re not! Don’t say that! I like you. Your dad adores you!”
Gabriella watched Tommy as he continued to cry. Then she crawled under the covers with him and cradled the sobbing child in her arms. “You, Tommy, are a wonderful, special child, and I love you.” She kissed his forehead and held him against her chest. At that moment, Gabriella felt Tommy’s body stop quivering. His tears subsided, and he fell asleep.
Chapter Five: Poisoned Water
Davian took out his bandanna and wiped his forehead for what seemed like the three-hundredth time that day and slapped the five-hundredth bloodsucker that tried to drill into his arm. He looked up at the night sky and sighed. He could barely see the moon through the Morvenian haze. He missed the stars. He hated Morvenian nights worse than the days. Breezeless, warm, noiseless nights without so much as an annoying dove or tree sprite to break the eerie silence.
“Even the crickets won’t live here, Eric,” he muttered.
Eric slapped his leg. “Bloodsuckers don’t seem to have a problem with it.”
Marcus wiped the sweat off his forehead and flung it to the ground. “I’ll bet they’re sitting around fires back home tonight, wrapped in cloaks and drinking hot spice-lager.”
“Why does it get so hot down here?” asked Josephi.
Eric laughed. “Our mapper wants to know why it gets so hot in southern Morvenia.”
Davian grabbed his canteen and sipped a few of the last drops of water. “We suspect Morvenia’s located over a lava bed. That’s why the swamps bubble, so we basically take a steam bath every time we fly over a fault.”
“Please tell me they taught you that in RSO training, Josephi,” said Marcus.
“They did,” Josephi replied. “I just didn’t realize a lava bed would make the place so hot.”
Marcus covered his mouth to hide his snicker. Eric winked at him and turned to Josephi. “No, runt, lava beds tend to freeze the surrounding area. This one is just unique.”
Josephi raised his eyebrows. “Really? Because I thought—”
“The captain’s joking, Josephi,” whispered Snead. “Shut up and pretend you’re smart.”
Davian held up his hand for silence. He thought he heard something. He listened carefully and smiled.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, could beat the refreshing noise of rushing water on this sweltering evening, and from the sound of it, cool, fresh water awaited them only a few hundred yards away. Suddenly Davian’s 350 years at war seemed brief, and his vegetable garden could wait another year.
They crept on until they reached a stream. Josephi reached for his canteen and stooped to fill it. Marcus grabbed his hand and pointed to the water’s yellowish tint.
“Hold up,” he said. “This one feeds from the Poisonwood Forest.”
The Enbed River, the only source of water in all of Morvenia, originated from a spring in the top of the western mountains and divided just as it entered Morvenia. Part of it ran north to the Cragdern Mountains where the gnomes resided. The other part ran south through the Poisonwood Forest, where the trees were so potent they could burn and disfigure any cherubian who took shelter under one during a rainstorm. In the forest, the river picked up the yellow poisonwood sap and carried it through most of the creeks in southern Morvenia. Any animal that fell into an infected creek never came out, and on especially hot days, the steam burned Davian and his unit’s noses and lungs. Eventually, all the infected streams flowed into a basin in the heart of Morvenia—a basin Davian’s unit had dubbed “The Swamp of Death” for reasons they kept to themselves.
Davian hurled his empty canteen to the ground. Yes, a little vegetable garden about ten by fifteen feet sounded just right, with some flowers full of sweet nectar and a small pond. No, not a pond. A creek, with a cool, never-ending supply of fresh water. As Davian smiled at the thought, a bloodsucker hit oil and drank to its heart’s content until Davian’s hand ended its binge.
“Serves you right,” said Davian as he wiped his blood off his arm. “If I don’t drink, neither do you.” He turned to his unit. “We camp here. Josephi, I believe it’s your watch.”
Davian joined Eric, who had just un-shouldered his backpack. He took off his own pack and groaned as he sat down. He leaned back against a tree and twisted his ring back and forth with his thumb.
Eric chuckled. “You’re brooding.”
“I’m brooding.” Davian sighed. “If we bring a legion of troops south they’ll drink the good streams dry. We’ll need to find a way to water them if we want to attack.”
“Always trying to save Elysia on your own, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not. I’m just thinking about—”
“I know, Davian. Look, you worry too much about stuff you can’t control. Let the seraphs worry about watering the troops. Besides, it’s moot. Most of our troops are on Earth guarding the humans.”
“Eric, let’s not get into that again.”
“But Davian, it’s true. The humans have been multiplying at an incredible rate—faster than we are anyway—and it’s draining our forces. You know it, and I know it, and I guarantee you the seraphs know it.”
“Eric, it’s what we were created to do. It’s the reason for our existence. You know it, I know it, and I guarantee you the seraphs know it.”
“Well, the seraphs also know we’re thinning, and the mornachts are taking advantage of it.”
Davian turned to Marcus, who was unpacking his things. “Marcus, record our position along with the message, ‘Water scarce. Will need a way to hydrate troops.’”
Marcus had assumed the recording duties since the unit lost their original recorder to a minotaur in the mountains on the southwestern border of Morvenia where Davian and his men entered.
“Got it,” said Marcus. He recorded their position and Davian’s message on a scroll.
Davian knelt by Josephi, who was drawing the creek on his custom map. “How’s it coming, Josephi?” he asked.
“Well, sir, I think we’ve done well. I’ve mapped out most of this area.” He pointed to the area north of the Swamp of Death. Most of the area in the east had been filled in on earlier missions.
Davian patted Josephi on the back and pointed to the blank area in the northwest. “Now we just have to fill this part in, and we can go home.”
“Major, that’ll take at least two more moons!”
“We’ll go fast.”
“Major, what if Elysia needs us?” asked Snead. “Do they have a way to contact us to get us back?”
“For your purposes, no.”
“What about yours?”
“Nobody’s business but mine,” said Davian.
He fingered a small crystal he kept under his breastplate. Seraph Zephor had given it to him just before he left on the mission. The crystal was part of a bold new technological breakthrough that the Elysian military was testing as a way of sending messages undetected. Originally Elysia tried hawks, but mornachts discovered it and shot every hawk they saw. That forced the cherubians to send important messages the old fashioned way: seraph scroll cases. Slow, yes, but safe, for only a seraph’s command crystal could open the scroll case.
This new crystal technology, however, would enable Elysia to send messages of vital importance much faster and safer than a herald on a unicorn. To receive the message, Davian had only to hold the crystal in the light. Theoretically, it would pick up light signals sent from Elysia and turn certain colors depending on the message. The technology was crude, and Elysia could only send colors instead of full-length messages, but if they could make it work, it would give their army a distinct advantage.
“That map will be useless if the Senate and the Prime Minister refuse to authorize an attack on Morvenia,” Eric said as Davian sat back down.
The Senate and the Prime Minister controlled Elysia’s military strategy, so most of the military, including Davian and Eric, hated it. Some—especially Zephor—went so far as to blame the politicians for letting the war linger on for 3,000 years. Zephor always believed that if the Prime Minister and the Senate stuck to politics and let the military do the fighting, the war would end in less than six months. Davian agreed.
“I’m hoping the map will help change their minds,” he said.
“Not likely,” said Marcus. “It’ll risk the lives of too many of our soldiers, and I can’t do that to the fine people of this great realm,” he added with his best Prime Minister impression.
Davian and Eric tried to stifle their laughter. “You’re both probably right,” Davian muttered.
Davian twisted and turned, trying to get comfortable so he could sleep. He finally found a comfortable position and drifted into his dream of a little tree cottage complete with his little vegetable garden and now, a little stream. Usually, Davian’s dreams gave him his only means of escape from the miserable landscape he trudged through daily. This dream, however, slowly changed into something nightmarish.
It began with Zephor sending him on a quest through all Elysia in search of new recruits. His mission proceeded well at first, but the deeper he traveled into the heart of Elysia the greater the sense of evil he felt—an evil different from that of Morvenia, but no less evil. He often noticed gnome-like shadows following him, a strange sneer here, a glare from a stranger there, whispers in dark corners at inns when his back was turned. As he flew, he saw smoke billowing out of the City of Ezzer in the distance. He raced back to the city, expecting to see it overcome with mornachts. Instead he saw cherubians fighting cherubians, and the battle was fiercer than any Davian had ever seen.
Davian woke up with a start and grabbed his crossbow. He finally realized that the horrible battle was just a dream when he saw Eric standing next to him, knife drawn. Snead stood just a few yards away with an arrow cocked, ready to shoot it at whatever leapt out of the woods. Marcus and Josephi grabbed their weapons.
Davian set down his crossbow and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Just a bad dream, boys.” he said. “You can go back to sleep. Sorry I woke everyone up.”
“Just a bad dream?” said Marcus. “What were you dreaming? Did minotaurs take over the entire place?”
Davian shook his head and crawled back under his blanket.
Eric sheathed his knife. “Boy did you give me a scare, Davian!” He lay down on his mat and pulled his blanket to his chin. “What in Heaven’s Realm was your dream about?”
“Well, obviously it was bad enough for you to grab your crossbow and wave it around like one of Salla’s LAF-lackeys trying to show off.”
“I just dreamed we were being attacked. That’s all.”
“Well, if you ever have a dream about me attacking you, please wake up before you do anything you might regret later—like killing me.”
Davian pretended to laugh as he turned over and tried to set aside the discomforting thoughts that had haunted him for several years. For some time he had been nursing growing suspicions that all was not right in Elysia. He had not voiced those suspicions to anyone or anything save the walls of his home—not even to Eric. He first became suspicious when Sephus, a promising young RSO officer, lost his wing in a mysterious accident and could not remember what had happened. Davian had set the matter aside, but kept on the lookout for things that appeared unusual or strange. He found more than he expected.
Too many top-notch soldiers began getting hurt or killed in suspicious accidents. Gnome activity in and around Elysia increased, along with vulture activity in areas where nothing had died. Although vultures were not necessarily evil, they often ran messages for the mornachts, and their unhindered travel worried Davian. He tried to ignore such instances, figuring most of his suspicions were born out of silly paranoia.
That changed when the young Gabriella destroyed the nectar reservoir. Most—especially Zephor—called it a stunt by an immature soldier with something to prove, but Davian had watched Gabriella enough to know that she rarely showed off. She had nothing to prove because she was naturally good at everything. She had whizzed through cadet training as though it were easy, and she was the best archer the Elysian military had seen in a long time. None of it went to her head; she simply went about her business. That incident turned Davian’s mere paranoia into serious suspicions.
Davian glanced at Eric and was glad the captain could not hear his thoughts. He knew Eric would say, “You think about her too much,” again. Eric was probably right, but that was not the reason Davian defended her after the nectar reservoir incident. He knew the girl would never try anything like the Hover Run—especially on the night of her graduation from cadet training. Davian had reason to believe someone chased Gabriella into the Hover Run, but he could never prove it because she woke up unable to remember anything whatsoever about the incident—just like Sephus.
After the nectar reservoir incident, Davian found campsites with evidence of secret meetings between gnomes, cherubians, and mornachts. He also noticed that the mornachts often seemed to know exactly when and where to attack during many of their raids. He had alerted the seraphs about many of these instances—especially the gnome and mornacht meetings, but they passed off his suggestions as coincidence.
He even began to write down suspicious behavior as he encountered it, hoping to somehow discover a pattern. None had emerged. He made a note to jot down the gnome giving the mornachts drekels and the mornacht possessing a command crystal when he returned home, but he knew those incidents would not help him discover the pattern.
Davian tried to forget his dream as he tossed and turned on his mat. Finally, he found himself in his familiar glen with his tree cottage and his vegetable garden.
Chapter Six: Scars for Life
The boys gave Tommy their letters of apology when he returned to school the next day. He waited until he was safe at home to read them—a good decision because most said something like this: Dear Cry Baby, I’m writing you this letter because the teacher says I have to. You are nothing but a sissy crybaby and I’m sorry that we have to beat you up to make you a man. Sincerely, Josh.
Tommy crumpled the letter and threw it in the garbage can, then pounded his fist on the desk, again and again, in a display of a temper that Gabriella had never seen.
“Oh, oh, oh! Not like Jim!” Gabriella said. “Tommy, your dad is the best, but not his temper!” She watched helplessly as Tommy crumpled up the rest of the letters. “Tommy, you’ve got to let it go! You’ve got to let it go! Work with me here!”
Something caught Gabriella’s eye when Tommy grabbed the last letter. It actually started with “Dear Tommy,” instead of something derogatory. She slammed it on the desk before he could toss it into the garbage can. Tommy sighed and read the letter.
Dear Tommy, I am so sorry for not helping you when all those kids beat you up. I don’t think they are very nice, but I’m afraid they’ll break my nose, too. Anyway, I’m not going to hang out with them anymore. Your Pal, Ritchie P.S. Maybe we could play American Heroes one day. I just got the tank.
Tommy stared at the letter for a long time. Then he crumpled it up and slammed it in the garbage can with the rest.
“He really is sorry,” said Gabriella.
Tommy took out his math workbook and started to work a problem.
“Yeah, I guess you don’t want friends like that, do you?”
Tommy concentrated on his addition.
“But he doesn’t think you’re a dweeb or a crybaby.”
“Why do teachers have to assign fifty problems?” Tommy said to himself.
“That makes three of us now, so you had better rethink last night’s ‘nobody likes me’ comment.”
“Five plus seven is twelve. Put down a two, carry the one.”
Gabriella looked down at Tommy’s homework. “Oh, math. No wonder you’re in such a foul mood.”
Tommy narrowed his eyes and put down his pencil. He looked over his shoulder at the closet, as though he expected Mikey to jump out.
“What’s up, big—?” A faint hint of sulfur hit Gabriella’s nostrils. She cocked an arrow and hovered above Tommy’s desk with her back against the wall.
An eerie, hissing laughter resonated from Tommy’s closet. “How did you know they were here, Tommy?” Gabriella whispered. She aimed her arrow at the closet and yelled, “You’re in Elysian territory. Get out now, or I will fight!”
The door nudged open, and not one, but two dark, decayed forms jumped out and bounded toward Gabriella with their swords drawn.
Gabriella let her arrow fly, and the first mornacht fell with an arrow sticking right between the crevices of his armor. She sent another deadly accurate arrow at the second, but it blocked it with its shield and threw a dagger at her.
She ducked just in time.
“Slow! Slow! You are slow for a guard!” hissed the mornacht as it scampered across the ceiling like a cockroach.
Gabriella kept it in her arrow’s site, waiting for a good shot. Then the dead mornacht began to steam. Gabriella dove under Tommy’s desk just before it blew up. The second mornacht continued crawling around the perimeter of the room, laughing and hissing.
“Don’t watch it,” Gabriella told herself once she emerged from the desk. “It’s trying to make you dizzy.” She tried to keep her focus ahead of her, which was why she missed it sneaking up behind her.
The mornacht’s spindly fingers wrapped around her throat. Gabriella dropped her bow and struggled to escape, but its fingers were too long to pry open. She slammed it into the wall, but it kept its hold.
“By the time they send a replacement, I’ll have already established residency!” the mornacht hissed in her ear.
Gabriella forced herself to calm down and remember her training. “When a mornacht’s got your throat, it doesn’t have any hands to defend itself!” she remembered her grappling instructor yelling. She reached in her boot, grabbed her spare dagger, and rammed it over her head down into the mornacht’s shoulder. The mornacht shrieked and loosed its hold just enough for Gabriella to wriggle free. It grabbed wildly at her and managed to latch its long fingernails just below both of her shoulders. They tore into her skin, from her biceps to her wrists, as she flew away.
Gabriella ignored the pain and grabbed her sword hilt. She dropped to the floor, whipped around, and thrust out her sword.
The mornacht flew right into Gabriella’s sword—scratching and clawing until it drew its final breath. She kicked it off and pulled her sword out of its belly. With one swift swing, the mornacht’s head landed on Tommy’s bed. She shoved the mornacht’s head and torso through the window and watched it burst into flames just as it hit the driveway.
She had forgotten about the mornacht’s blood on her hands. It began to sizzle, and she gritted her teeth against the pain as she tried to wipe it off before it burned through her skin. Gabriella leaned against the wall and slid to the floor.
“They know you’re hardening,” she said to Tommy as she grabbed her horn. “They won’t make it any easier for you.” She blew the horn. “Or me either,” she muttered and waited for a herald to attend her.
While she waited, she took a good look at Tommy. He was panting, and a bead of sweat traveled down the side of his head as he looked around the room.
“It was nothing. Just my imagination—just my imagination,” Tommy whispered to himself. “Back to math.”
“You can sense them?” Gabriella asked. She hopped on the desk and watched Tommy finish his math problems. “Humans can’t sense them. Why can you?”
Gabriella’s thoughts wandered to what the mornachts might want with Tommy. They must have known he was hardening and wanted to seize the opportunity to take up early residency. Early residency meant taking over a human before he had hardened—a horrible violation of any peace accord even Salla could think up. The mornachts only used it when they found a valuable human on the verge of hardening, but knew the human might reverse it himself. The mornachts would kill the human’s guard and take up residency for as long as possible until Elysia sent enough soldiers to extract it. Usually, the soldiers came too late.
Gabriella shivered at the thought of a mornacht toying with her Tommy and hoped she had fought hard enough to discourage any more attacks.
The herald who attended Gabriella happened to be a healer’s apprentice, and her hands and arms felt much better once he finished. He explained to her that her hands would heal without scarring. Unfortunately, he could not say the same for her arms.
“Scars like these would make any soldier proud,” he said to cheer her up. “Most guards would have died, and I know of officers back home who wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to do what you did. Those are scars of bravery.”
Gabriella disagreed. She knew her early hesitation gave the second mornacht just enough time to block her first arrow.
“They’re scars of inexperience,” she muttered to herself, deciding to double her archery practice once her hands healed.
Chapter Seven: The Cabin
Almost a month later, Gabriella fidgeted above Tommy and glanced at the classroom clock. Two twenty-five. Five minutes until Christmas break! Five minutes until Tommy’s dad would pick him up and take him to the cabin with his uncles—far away from Lorraine and the boys at school.
“Now class,” droned Mrs. Gatch. “Remember that the comma goes before the—”
“Before the and. I know. I know!” mumbled Tommy. He glanced at the clock and started bouncing up and down.
“Come on, lady!” said Aaron. “You lost the battle forty-five minutes ago! Do you honestly think that commas and their placement can compete with sugarplums and Santa Claus?”
Mrs. Gatch’s gaze shifted to the clock, and she smiled her own smile of relief. “Okay class, time for your homework.”
The class and guards responded with groans.
“Your homework…” she began, “…is to go have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year!”
The class’s groans turned to cheers that rang as loud as the school bell, the blessed messenger that signaled the beginning of two wonderful weeks of bliss.
Tommy grabbed his bags and tried to navigate his way through a crowd of fifth-grade behemoths. Gabriella followed behind, pushing away some book bags that nearly broke his nose again. He ran out the door to the pickup area to wait for his dad.
“Hey, Tommy,” said a shy voice over his shoulder.
Tommy turned around and looked up. (As the shortest in his class, he always looked up.) The voice belonged to Ritchie.
“Oh, hi, Ritchie.”
Awkward silence followed.
“Doing anything neat for Christmas?”
Before Tommy could answer, a more foreboding voice interrupted. “Hey, Ritchie! What are you doing with Tiny Tommy Crybaby? He’s a loser!”
Ritchie shifted his weight a couple times, looking first at Mikey and the other boys and then at Tommy. Luckily, his mother drove up and saved him from having to choose between popularity and friendship.
“Gotta go, Tommy. Merry Christmas.” Ritchie ran down the steps and climbed into the safety of his mother’s car.
Gabriella watched Tommy stare at the car as it drove away. The look in his eyes made her nervous. “Don’t hate him, Tommy!” she said.
Tommy finally smiled when he saw his dad’s truck pull around the corner. He grabbed his books, ran to the truck, and jumped in the passenger seat. Gabriella took a seat next to Zane in the back.
“Together again, eh, Gabs?” said Zane.
“At least we don’t have to listen to a five hour long argument all the way to the cabin. I see you gave up shotgun.”
“Yeah, but at least I’m giving it up to Tommy, instead of the Arch-Mistress of Torture.” Zane took a good look at Tommy. “Not good, Gabs. He looks harder.”
“I know. I know! I’m trying my best. What am I supposed to do? No one at school likes him, and he has to live with—well, her. I’ve got my friend Aaron looking for any loopholes in the Code that I can use to help him.”
“Gabs, I don’t think anything you can do will help him. Tommy needs motherly love and affection, and you can’t give that to him—short of becoming human without permission—and that violates every rule and loophole in the Code.”
Gabriella frowned and crossed her arms.
“Don’t worry about it, Gabs. All boys go through something like this at one time or another. I remember when Jimmy did.”
“Yeah, but all boys don’t have Lorraine for a mother.”
“Well, Jimmy had her for a wife for a while, and he’s still okay.”
Below, Jim finished giving Tommy their secret handshake. He reached under his car seat and retrieved a small, hastily wrapped package. “Now I know it’s not Christmas yet, but I figured this couldn’t wait.”
Tommy’s eyes widened as he took the gift from his dad. “I can open it now?”
Tommy tore into the package. “Wow! Lieutenant Cobb!” Lieutenant Cobb was the newest American Hero action figure, a paratrooper.
“I had to give him to you early because we’ll need him to complete our next assignment,” said Jim with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“Whoopee!” yelled Tommy.
Zane shared none of Tommy’s enthusiasm. “Couldn’t you have chosen a private?” he said. “Or maybe a desk jockey! A paratrooper usually requires a cliff, and I’ve seen you around cliffs, and you, Jimmy, are much too old to go and—!” Zane turned to Gabriella. “What are you laughing at?”
Gabriella clutched her sides, unable to answer.
“Gabs, this isn’t funny! My Jimmy is a fully grown man who somehow always manages to change back into the nightmare he was as a boy when he gets around your charge!”
Gabriella continued laughing.
“I can’t believe you’re laughing at this! Do you know what it’s like having to push things out of the way of a falling thirty-seven-year-old preschooler? They cover more surface area than little seven-year-old runts, I can tell you!”
“Zane, stop! Stop! It hurts too much!”
Zane crossed his arms and leaned against the back seat, fuming.
Gabriella finally calmed down. “It feels so good to know that another guard out there knows what I’m going through.”
“At least you don’t have a swing set. Little Jimmy had a swing set. I called it the Suicide Swing Set because on some days I was going to either commit suicide or suicide him!”
“Don’t start thinking you had it so bad. Tommy has a Wailing Wall in his backyard!”
“A Wailing Wall doesn’t have nails—and screws—and chains—and a slide you can break your teeth on! Have you ever heard how loud a boy screams when he breaks his teeth?”
“Have you ever heard how loud a boy screams when he jumps off a nine-foot wall into a thorn bush?”
Tommy clutched Lieutenant Cobb as he looked out the window at the passing trees. When his dad turned off the main road onto a winding trail that led up the mountain, Tommy began to bounce in his seat.
“Thank goodness we’re almost there,” said Gabriella. She watched Tommy’s excitement with relief. Christmas break could not have arrived at a better time. The poor boy needed a vacation from the trials life at home threw at him.
“Yeah!” Tommy yelled. “We’re here!”
The truck pulled up to the cabin. Before it stopped, Tommy opened the door and jumped out into the winter air. Gabriella darted out behind him, and it was Zane’s turn to laugh.
“At least mine finally keeps his hands and arms inside the vehicle until it comes to a full and complete stop!” he yelled as she chased Tommy up the slippery hill.
“That’s only because yours is the one behind the wheel!” Gabriella pushed a leaf that covered some ice out of the way before Tommy could step on it and slip.
The cabin was actually Uncle Bob’s five-bedroom, four-bath, 3,000 square foot mini-mansion. Tommy ran up to the huge oak doors that guarded the cabin’s entrance and pushed.
“Need some help there, son?” asked his father.
Jim’s strong arms enveloped Tommy’s shoulders, and the two of them pushed open the doors together. Tommy ran inside the cabin’s wood paneled foyer. Warm air and the soothing crackles from a fire in the den greeted them along with the smell of gingerbread cookies and pipe weed.
“Tommy!” said a bald man in a red sweater who emerged from the kitchen. That was Uncle Bob, who picked Tommy up in a bear hug.
Aunt Sophie, a trim, tan blonde wearing a sleek, brown turtleneck joined him and waited for her husband to set Tommy down. Then she gave Tommy a squeeze of her own. Next came Nana, a four-foot-nine eccentric lady wearing a bright purple sweater and a red, wool hat. Tommy cringed as Nana pinched his cheeks.
“My you’ve grown,” she said, and passed him to Gramps, who laid down his pipe long enough to give him a hug.
As Tommy hugged his grandparents, Gabriella stole a glance out the windows at the woods behind the house. She sniffed a couple of times, checking for sulfur—a habit she had formed since her bout with the mornachts. Things seemed safe, so she turned back to Tommy, who scrambled down from Gramps’ lap and ran over to Uncle Neil, who sat at the counter nursing a beer. Uncle Neil set his beer on the counter and gave Tommy a high five.
“How’s my favorite nephew?” he asked.
“Great!” said Tommy.
Gabriella looked around. Charlotte, Uncle Neil’s girlfriend, whom Jim called the huge pain in the you-know-what, was nowhere to be found.
Jim trudged inside carrying two duffle bags under each arm.
“Jimbo!” yelled his two brothers in unison. Hugs and kisses were had by all, along with loud laughing and storytelling.
“Where’s Charlotte, Uncle Neil?” asked Tommy after the din died down.
Zane and Gabriella turned to Zebedee, Neil’s guard. A big smile crossed Zebedee’s face.
Uncle Neil ran his fingers through his hair. “Charlotte?”
“…is history!” Zebedee said with glee.
“Tommy, Charlotte isn’t coming this time.”
Zebedee waved good-bye to an imaginary Charlotte. “Bye-bye!”
“Actually Tommy, you probably won’t see Charlotte again.”
“Good riddance!” yelled Zebedee. He slammed an imaginary door and danced a little victory jig.
Gabriella and Zane laughed.
“Was she that bad?” asked Zane.
“She was on her best behavior here,” said Zebedee.
Tommy’s eyes brightened. “You mean you dumped her?”
“Yeah, I dumped her.”
Zebedee entertained the guards with another victory dance.
“Whoopee!” yelled Tommy.
Jim walked through the door with another suitcase. “What’s all the commotion about?”
“Dad! Uncle Neil dumped Charlotte!”
Jim walked over to his brother and patted him on the back. “That truly is good news, Bro.”
“I seem to be getting a lot of that,” said Neil through a swig of beer.
Zebedee slapped his hand across his forehead and said, “That’s because she’s mornacht-spawn, moron!”
“Well, Neil, that’s because she was the devil’s spoiled child,” said Jim. He patted his brother on the shoulder and returned to the car to bring in more suitcases.
Neil joined him, and Zebedee followed, commenting, “Yeah, and Jim knows all about mornacht-spawn, right Zane?”
“Don’t go on, Zeb,” Zane admonished him.
“At least I didn’t marry her, Baby Brother!” said Neil as he walked out the door.
Zebedee pulled Gabriella aside. “Is the boy okay?” he asked. “He looks a little—”
“Hard. I know! I’m working on it!”
Zane overheard the conversation and joined them. “Come to think about it, Gabs, Lorraine doesn’t have a guard. You could always…” Zane looked back and forth, “…eliminate her.”
Gabriella stared at Zane in horror. “No!”
“Yeah, why not?” Zebedee chimed in.
“Because! First, it’s just plain wrong! We are supposed to protect the humans—not eliminate them.”
“But I don’t think you can classify Lorraine as human,” said Zane.
“And second, the Code forbids it. Besides all of us know that humans choose to harden on their own. Plenty of boys live with worse than Lorraine, and they aren’t hard. It’s a heart issue with Tommy, not a parental one, and you both know that.”
“Whoa! Listen to the rookie try to tell us how things should be,” said Zebedee with a teasing grin.
Zane frowned. “Well, it would make my charge’s life a lot easier if Lorraine…went away.”
“Speaking of rookies, I’ve been practicing for this year’s Christmas archery tournament,” said Zebedee. He elbowed Gabriella in the ribs. “This year I will humble the great Gabriella once and for all! Fifteen drekels says I beat you, Gabby.”
Gabriella raised her eyebrows, and Zane burst into laughter. “I’m still placing fifteen drekels on Gabs.”
“You’ll be out those fifteen,” said Zebedee. “Come on Gabs! What do you say?”
“I say I shoot for honor, not money, Zeb,” Gabriella said. She wrapped her arms around both of them. “I’ll let Zane do the betting.”
Zane’s smile faded when he saw the large, fresh scars running down Gabriella’s arms. “Hey, Gabs. What are those from?”
“Those are hideous!” said Zebedee. “What happened? It looks like you were scratched by a mornacht.”
Gabriella hid her arms behind her back. “It’s not something I want to talk about.”
They followed the family into the den. Gabriella stopped and hovered in mid-air, staring at a ceramic figurine on the bookshelf depicting an angel sitting on a ceramic cloud. “Tell me she didn’t buy another one.”
Zebedee grinned. “I was wondering how long it would take you to notice.”
“Sophie!” Gabriella wrinkled her nose as she stared at the Sophie’s newest angel dressed in a pastel purple robe with flowers decorating her long, flowing brown hair.
“Does someone want to tell the doc’s wife that clouds aren’t exactly that firm?” said Zane. “And that clouds don’t grow violets.”
“At least the robe isn’t pink this time,” said Zebedee.
“Lavender isn’t much better,” snapped Gabriella. “And tell me she’s not playing a harp.” Gabriella flew closer to the angel.
“No harps,” said Zebedee. “This one’s got a ukulele.”
“It’s a lute, Zeb,” said Zane.
“A lute? You actually know the difference between a ukulele and a lute?”
Gabriella shook her head as she stared at the angel. “White wings. I can’t believe it.” She looked at Zane and Zebedee. “Do the people who create these things even think about how difficult it would be to hide from mornachts with a pair of white wings on your back? Or how hard it would be to fight with all that hair flowing back and forth.”
Zane elbowed Gabriella in the ribs. “Hey, Gabs. You might want to find your charge.”
Gabriella looked around the room and gasped. No Tommy. She sighed with relief when she heard Tommy’s voice upstairs.
“Here we go,” she muttered, and she flew upstairs.”
After dinner Tommy and his dad convened in the basement, where they conquered foreign lands with their new paratrooper unit for hours. Tommy slept peacefully for the first time in a long time.
As Zane perched on the headboard of his sleeping charge, he noticed Gabriella holding her bow in her hand with an arrow half-cocked.
“So, warrior, are you going to tell me about those scars, or are you going to sit there like you’re expecting a battle?” he asked.
Gabriella took a deep breath and explained both experiences with the scout and the infiltrators.
After she finished, Zane whistled. “So that explains why you’ve been sniffing around all night. You actually killed two mornachts? What’s it like, slicing your blade through a mornacht’s throat?”
“I’m worried, Zane,” she said, opting to keep the thrill of actually engaging in battle to herself. “Tommy has something they want.” She looked back down at Tommy, who was smiling in his sleep. “He’s so much better with Jim.”
“And Jimmy is a much different man with Tommy, although I wouldn’t say he’s better.”
“Oh, leave him alone, Zane.”
Their conversation turned to talk about old times while Tommy and Jim slept soundly beneath them.
Chapter Eight: December Twenty-Second
The next morning, Tommy woke up just as light started to peek into the windows.
“Why does he wake up so early here? It takes him forever to wake up when he goes to school,” Gabriella muttered as she prepared for a new day of difficulty.
“Tommy knows how much I enjoy watching you in misery,” Zane said with a grin. He hopped onto Jim’s bed and placed his hands over Jim’s ears. “Get him out of here, or he’ll wake up my Jimmy.”
Gabriella stuck her tongue out at Zane just before she followed Tommy downstairs and into the kitchen, where he found Nana cooking bacon, eggs, and sausage. Tommy scrambled up onto a barstool.
“Good morning, Sunshine,” Nana said with a grin. “What
would you like to eat this morning?”
“Bacon and eggs, please.”
Gabriella took a moment to glance around the cabin. Aunt Sophie was drinking one of her health shakes. Uncle Neil, whose feet were toasty warm in those silly bear slippers he always wore, was sitting in the big chair in the corner hammering out blues riffs on his guitar. Uncle Bob was reading the paper. Gabriella turned back to Tommy and watched him take a big bite of sausage and chase it down with a swig of milk. She smiled. She just loved Jim’s family.
Zebedee pulled out his bow and gave Gabriella a wink. “How about a mini-contest before the big one, rookie?” he asked. “That deer head in there.”
Now Gabriella took much more pride in her aim than she ever let on to anyone—even Zane, and Zebedee’s comment ruffled it. She pulled out her bow and said, “Closest to the nose.”
The rest of the guards cheered and began placing bets.
Jim barreled into the kitchen and planted a kiss on Nana’s cheek. “Mother, your food always smells wonderful,” he said. He grabbed a spatula and loaded his plate with eggs, bacon, and sausage—and topped it all off with two pieces of toast. He sat down next to Tommy and proceeded to inhale his food.
“Watch out, Jimmy, or you’ll exhaust the chicken,” said Nana.
“I’m a growing boy, Mom. I need my nutrition!”
Uncle Neil stopped playing his guitar. “Just wait ‘till you turn forty, Jimbo. You’ll start growing out instead of up—just like the rest of us.”
Jim spread a huge dollop of butter on his toast with a smile. “Yeah, but until then, keep feeding the chicken.” He sank his teeth into an oversized bite of toast and grinned at Neil.
Zane noticed drekels changing hands between the other guards. “Hey, what’s the betting for?” he asked.
“If your charge got up earlier, you’d know,” said Gabriella.
“I’m going to humble the rookie, here,” said Zebedee as he inspected his bow.
Zane gave Zebedee a huge, smug smile. “Twenty drekels says Gabs wins.”
“What’s the smile for, Zane?” said Zebedee.
“Oh, nothing. I just enjoy watching you get embarrassed.” Because Neil and Jim were so close in age, Zane and Zebedee spent the most time together as guards and were almost as close as brothers themselves. They argued like brothers, too—just like Jim and Neil.
Zebedee and Gabriella drew lots to see who would start.
Zebedee won the draw. He stepped to the line.
“Best of five?” he asked.
Following appropriate cherubian form in archery contests, Zebedee turned away from the deer and took a deep breath. Then he whipped around and shot five arrows at the deer. All five hit the deer’s head, and one rested just outside its black nose. The guards who bet on Zebedee cheered, and drekels changed hands as the wagers increased. Zebedee elbowed Gabriella in the ribs as he flew by her.
“So what were you smiling about?” he asked Zane.
“Oh, I just happen to know that the rookie shot a mornacht between the armor this October.” He filled Zebedee in on the rest of the story.
Zane’s news that Gabriella managed to keep her head and shoot a moving mornacht between the armor unraveled Zebedee.
“You could have warned me, Zane,” he said.
“What? And miss out on a chance to make some easy money?” Zane smiled at Gabriella, who had her back to the target.
Gabriella gave Zane a slight nod and took a large breath. Then she whipped around and fired five arrows. All five of them hit the center of the deer’s nose. The guards cheered, and Zebedee threw his bow to the ground. He crossed his arms and flew as far away from Gabriella as he could.
“How often do you practice, Gabs?” asked Zane as she flew next to him.
“Every night for about two hours.”
“Every night!” said Zebedee. “You’re supposed to be guarding him! Not taking time for target practice!”
Gabriella glared at Zebedee. “He’s so active that he sleeps for twelve hours, and I only need seven.”
“So you practice archery?” said Zane.
“And other things.”
“Like what?” said Zebedee.
“Like fencing and low-hovering.” She noticed they both were looking at her like she was crazy. “What?”
Zebedee snorted in disgust, and Zane just shook his head. “You’re such a perfectionist, Gabs.”
“What’s the point of doing something if you don’t do it well?” Gabriella looked at her arms. “Besides, I’d be dead right now if I didn’t practice.”
Down below Jim finished his eggs. “So who are we going to conquer today, son?” he asked Tommy.
“Conquer a good book, Jimmy!” said Zane. “You don’t need to take him out into the woods and act like you’re seven again to teach him military strategy!”
“Today, Jimbo, we get to conquer that leak in the bathroom,” said Uncle Bob.
Tommy scowled. Zane cheered.
“Looks like I’ll have to join you later, son,” said Jim. He noticed Tommy’s forlorn look and gave him a hug. “Get everything ready for me, all right?”
“Okay,” Tommy grumbled. He finished his milk, wiped off his milk moustache, and ran upstairs to change. Not more than two minutes later, Tommy raced back down the stairs dressed in camouflage holding a backpack full of American Heroes. “Can I go outside and play, Dad?” he asked.
“No!” hinted Gabriella, shaking her head back and forth. “Goodness, no, Jim! Not in the woods—alone!”
“Don’t let him go too far,” said Gramps. “My left knee is sore today. That means a storm’s brewing.”
Jim rolled his eyes and ignored his dad’s warning. “Of course you can, son. I’ll come out to join you later.”
Zane flashed Gabriella a Cheshire cat grin. She glared at him.
“Just wait until he joins us,” she said, nodding at Jim. “You won’t be smiling then.”
Zane’s grin stayed put. “Oh, I do believe Uncle Bob has pretty much made my day easy. He’s so anal-retentive, he’ll have them fixing that leak all day. I just love Uncle Bob, don’t you?”
“I was starting to forget how annoying you can be, Zane.”
“Jimmy!” Nana said. “No grandson of mine is going out in this kind of weather without a hat and gloves.”
Tommy’s eyes widened. He tried to run out the door, but Nana still retained some of the energy she needed when she had three boys. She caught him, and he squirmed as she forced on his hat and gloves. He wiggled free and ran outside before she found something else to force on him.
Tommy ran far away from the cabin, leaping from rock to rock as he scrambled down the wooded mountain. When he stopped, he took off the hat and gloves and shoved them into his coat pocket. Gabriella chastised him for his disobedience and pointed to the clouds. Tommy continued running all the way to the river until he reached a circle of flat ground nestled between huge rocks. There he began setting up two opposing camps of American Heroes, placing each figure down as though it was made of porcelain.
Gabriella sniffed and glanced around the wood for some sign of a mornacht. “Oh, I’m acting just like a paranoid RSO,” she muttered. She glanced at the foreboding, gray clouds in the sky above and frowned. “Hey, Tommy, you may want to check out the sky.”
Tommy reached for Lieutenant Cobb and glanced at a five-foot rock wall to his left. “Cobb prepared for the most dangerous part of his mission: the HALO drop.”
“Oh, no, Tommy!” said Gabriella. “Lieutenant Cobb is afraid of heights. Please keep him on the ground!”
Tommy climbed to the top of the rock face, and so began another afternoon of hard labor for Gabriella.
Lieutenant Cobb had barely completed twelve HALO missions when snow flurries started to fall.
“The falling snow made Cobb’s assignments more difficult, but his military training made him ready for anything,” said Tommy.
“But Tommy, you don’t have military training,” said Gabriella. “And those clouds look really bad. Get inside!”
“The cold weather only heightened his resolve.”
“Tommy, inside! Now!”
The snow fell harder as Tommy sent his troops into battle. “Cobb tried climbing the steep mountain ravine, only to find it had iced over.”
Gabriella knew this was no ordinary snowstorm, and she feared it might turn into a full-scale blizzard.
“Oh, go inside already!” she said, but Tommy continued to play even as the snowflakes grew.
In Tommy’s game, two enemy guards spotted Lieutenant Cobb. One of them jumped out at him with a knife, but Cobb did not hesitate. He shot on sight.
“You’re dead!” yelled Tommy. “Job well done!”
He sat up and smiled until he finally noticed that the falling snow now covered the ground in a thick, two-inch blanket. The clouds looked almost black, and the wind sounded like a tornado whistling through the mountains.
“Better get inside,” he said, and he began gathering his American Heroes.
“It’s about time,” said Gabriella. She looked around for extra men she might flick in Tommy’s direction to help expedite his exit.
Tommy shouldered his backpack and headed for the cabin. “The snow continued to pile up as Lieutenant Cobb made his way home,” he said. He trudged through the ever-deepening snow and ice that made the path more treacherous than usual, hiding numerous stones and twigs from even Gabriella. Tommy reached inside his jacket and pulled his dad’s dog tags out from underneath the layers of clothing. He took them off his neck and clutched them in his hand.
“He’s definitely scared,” Gabriella said to herself.
Tommy only grabbed Jim’s dog tags like that when he
She wrapped her arm around Tommy and whispered, “It’s going to be all right, big guy. We’ll make it.”
Tommy plodded along until he tripped on an especially gnarly branch and hit the ground dangerously close to the drop off. He released his dad’s dog tags, and Gabriella watched in horror as they fell down the mountainside and landed on a rock that jutted out over the river.
“Not good,” Tommy whispered. “Lieutenant Cobb loses his valuable equipment.” He grabbed a nearby branch that Gabriella had pushed toward him and pulled himself up. “He decides to brave the weather to get it back.”
“What are you doing?” yelled Gabriella as Tommy began to climb down the mountain. She flew beside him. “Are you crazy? Go inside and get them tomorr—ooh, watch that rock.”
She steadied a loose rock as Tommy stepped on it. “Tommy, go inside. Go in—!”
Tommy slipped on the rock and slid five yards down the mountain. Gabriella pushed some branches in his way. They caught his backpack, and Tommy found himself hanging by his backpack on the side of the mountain. “Cobb suffers a slight setback as he attempts the rescue mission.”
“Rescue mission?” said Gabriella. “This is not a rescue mission! This, this is suicide!”
Tommy twisted and turned, trying to grab something to help him break free. Gabriella pushed a branch to his outstretched hand. He grabbed it and slipped out of his backpack to freedom.
“Okay, now go home,” Gabriella said. She pointed toward the cabin. “That way.”
Instead, Tommy continued toward the lost dog tags. “Stalled, but not stopped, Cobb presses on.”
“Young man, this is not playtime anymore!” Gabriella flew to his ear and yelled, “Go back to the house, now!”
No good. The howling wind masked her small voice. Tommy trudged down to the dog tags, and Gabriella resigned herself to keeping rocks and branches out of his way.
Neither Gabriella nor Tommy saw the snow-covered rock a few feet ahead. Tommy stepped on it, slipped, hit his head, and careened down the mountainside toward a cliff.
“Tommy!” screamed Gabriella.
She tried to throw things in front of him to break his fall, but nothing slowed him down. Gabriella found him grasping a slippery rock at the edge of the cliff with his feet dangling over the river. She flew underneath him and searched for something to give him a foothold. Nothing. She flew back up and knelt on the rock facing Tommy.
“Help me!” he yelled. “Somebody help!”
“Somebody help!” Gabriella yelled as well. Maybe, just maybe, Jim might have torn himself away from the bathroom leak long enough to realize his son was still outside in the middle of a snowstorm. Maybe he and Zane were out here right now looking for Tommy! She blew blast after blast on her horn.
Just over the hill, Neil and Jim were indeed plowing through the snow looking for Tommy, and Zane and Zebedee heard her horn. Zane soared into the air.
“They’re on the other side!” he yelled to Zebedee. Below, Jim and Neil took a turn in the opposite direction. “Oh, no you don’t, Jimmy!” Zane said. He pulled both sides of the bushes together to prevent Jim from passing.
“That’s not exactly following the Code,” said Zebedee.
“I don’t care. My Jimmy already has enough to deal with. He can’t lose Tommy, and if Gabs is blowing her horn, that means trouble.”
Tommy continued to slip. He glanced down, saw the raging water below, and started squirming. He slipped even more. “Help, somebody!” he yelled again, but his voice disappeared into the falling snow.
Gabriella knelt in front of Tommy. “Please don’t fall, Tommy!” she said. “Please!”
She could do nothing else unless she was commanded to morph into a human, she hoped against all that was in the Code that Elysia might command her to morph. That hope faded as Tommy’s fingers began to slip. Soon, he would fall into the river, and he could not swim.
“Please don’t fall, Tommy,” she said. “Please don’t fall.”
Gabriella felt a light tap on her shoulder. She cringed, thinking a herald had come to reassign her. She ignored the tap and grasped Tommy’s hands.
“He’s just a seven year old boy!” she shouted. “He shouldn’t have to die!”
“On your feet, guard!”
Gabriella spun around and gasped when she saw, not a herald, but Seraph Zephor scowling at her. She saluted and knelt. “I apologize, Seraph! I didn’t know!”
Gabriella stood up.
“Guard, this little one is extremely important to our cause. I hereby authorize you to use any means necessary to save his life.”
Gabriella wiped her tears. “You mean I’m allowed to become human?”
“Any and all means necessary to save his life,” repeated Zephor. Then he disappeared.
Gabriella turned around, but she was too late!
Tommy’s fingers finally gave way. He plummeted into the river, where only a few minutes stood between him and the whitewater downstream, which would either shred him to pieces or carry him under forever. Gabriella ripped off her breastplate and her helmet and flew off the rock toward Tommy.
She took a deep breath and morphed into a human.
Gabriella hit the water and immediately felt as though millions of tiny, cold needles had inserted themselves into her skin. She floated for a moment until the shock wore off, then swam toward Tommy and grabbed him.
“I’ve got you, Tommy!” she said. She towed him to shore and pulled him out of the water. “Stay with me, big guy!”
Tommy’s blue lips murmured something inaudible.
“Steady, soldier,” she told herself. “Analyze the situation before doing anything dumb.”
She examined Tommy. He had no broken bones or head wounds, but he was soaked. She needed something that would keep him warm until she carried him back to the cabin.
“Bless you, Nana,” she said as she retrieved the hat and gloves from Tommy’s coat pocket. She shoved them on Tommy and picked him up. She looked around and realized that she was lost, and her human sense of direction was less refined than a cherubian’s. She scanned the woods until she saw the rock Tommy had fallen from. She could probably find the path to the cabin from there. She bent her knees and tried to fly.
“Oh, blast your wingless human bodies!” she yelled when she landed on the ground and almost lost her balance. She cradled Tommy in her arms and trudged toward the rock.
Unfortunately, Gabriella was only wearing a tunic, a kilt, and thick leather boots, and all of them were soaked. Soon, she could barely feel her feet or her fingers, and the snowflakes covering her eyelashes blocked her vision. The woods began to spin as her human body began to shut down.
“Help, please!” she yelled again.
Gabriella heard a man’s voice yelling Tommy’s name in the distance.
“Over here!” she yelled back.
“We hear you! We’re coming!”
Soon. Jim and Neil waded through the snow toward her. She stumbled to Jim.
“He fell in the river, Jim,” she said as she handed Jim the wet bundle. “You’ve got to get him back to the cabin, or he’ll freeze to death.”
“Who are you?” Jim asked as he grabbed his son. “How do you know my name?”
“I’m a friend. Just take Tommy and go.” She turned to walk away, but her foot slipped. She hit her head on a rock, and her world turned black.
Chapter Nine: Zephor Gets His Wish
Zephor rushed to the Command Chamber, muttering in disgust about Elysia calling him away from a Morvenian raid on one of the larger villages to the southwest—a raid he had almost contained.
“This had better be an emergency and not one of Salla’s silly policy discussions,” he mumbled as he flew through the Command Chamber’s doors. Inside, Octirius and Salla were engaged in a bitter argument with the Prime Minister, a bald, round cherubian whose best days of battle lay far behind him. Crumbs from the Prime Minister’s earlier lunch still mingled with his beard and speckled his robes—the finest silver robes Zephor had ever seen—and the blood vessels that decorated his cheeks and nose seemed redder than normal.
Zephor silently saluted, perched next to Octirius, and listened to them bicker.
“I will not authorize you to send any more troops down to the Mossengard Forest, Octirius,” the Prime Minister said. “It will cost too much, and we already have enough troops down there as it is.”
“Sir, you are correct when you say we have troops down there, but you are not correct when you say that we have enough. We’ve only just taken the territory. The mornachts want it back, and if we don’t fortify it with new troops, they’ll take it again. We’ll lose even more troops trying to retake the territory than we will if we send additional troops now to hold it.”
“And just how am I supposed to explain this move to the Senate and the people of Elysia?”
“You could tell them that we’re doing it to keep them from dying in Morvenian raids,” said Zephor.
The Prime Minister’s entire face turned red. “Don’t take that tone with me, Zephor!”
“Your honor, if you let us send the troops down there now, then I won’t have to take more troops in to help squash the Morvenian raids that will predictably occur after they retake the territory, which is what I’m doing right now in the Syla valley.”
“Are you’re suggesting that these raids are my fault, Zephor?”
“I’m simply saying that they are raiding the Syla valley because we haven’t fortified it sufficiently, your honor—and if we don’t fortify Mossengard, the same thing will happen there.”
The Prime Minister’s red face turned scarlet. “No! No, you will not send the troops, and that’s final!” He jumped off his perch and stormed out of the Command Chamber.
“What would you say if you found out we’ve been sending RSOs into Morvenia itself?” Salla muttered. “What would you say then?”
“He’d say it was a better idea than spending money to pay the gnomes to risk their necks and spy it out for us,” said Zephor.
“He won’t say anything because he won’t find out because Salla knows these walls are only made of crystal, and he won’t yell,” said Octirius. “Seraphs, should we adjourn to the canaf meeting room, or can I trust you to keep any arguments you may have with each other down?”
“We haven’t even started yet, sir,” said Salla. “Give us some leeway.”
“Seraph, I hate to interrupt, but may I ask what this is all about?” said Zephor. “I left three Morvenian raids unattended to get here.”
“You look weary, Zephor,” said Octirius.
“I am weary, sir. Three Morvenian raids in a week are too much.”
“It’s not just the raids, is it Zephor?”
“I’m tired of the war, sir.”
“So am I,” Octirius said with a frown. “You’ll be happy to know that this meeting is important.” He told Zephor about Gabriella’s incident.
“I don’t understand how that could happen,” Zephor said. “She was fine when I delivered the message.”
“She was fine until she managed to hit her head,” said Salla. “Don’t you think you could have told her to be less clumsy?”
“It’s Gabriella we’re talking about, Salla. Telling her to be less clumsy is like telling a sprite to slow down. Earth is lucky she hasn’t destroyed any major factories, yet! Besides, aren’t you the one who insisted she stay on Tommy? Things would be a lot better if—!”
Octirius cleared his throat and crossed his arms. “Seraphs, for just once, give me five minutes without any personal jibes at each other.”
Both arch-seraphs gritted their teeth, crossed their arms, and sent silent, seething messages across the table with their eyes.
“Personal jibes including those unspoken,” said Octirius. “Now, back to business at hand. We have an unguarded human on Earth—an unguarded human who happens to be the child of the prophecy. Little Tommy is in dire need of a guard, and not just any will do. Tommy needs the best. I want your recommendations.”
“I recommend Captain Picante,” said Salla. “He made the Hover Run in five minutes, fifty-six seconds, and he’s in the best shape anyone could ask for.”
Octirius nodded and stroked his beard. “Duly noted, good suggestion. Zephor, your thoughts?”
“If we want the best, we want Major Davian, sir.”
Salla scowled at Zephor. “Of course! Your little protégé! You RSOs always think you’re the only ones qualified—”
“Five minutes!” roared Octirius.
Zephor refrained from saying, That’s because we are the only ones qualified, and instead turned to Octirius. “Davian knows enemy tactics. He knows battle. He knows guarding. Guarding a seven-year-old boy in a non-war-torn country will be sprites’ play to him.”
“Davian is currently in the heart of Morvenia on one of those secret missions we’re not supposed to tell the Prime Minister about,” said Salla. “By the time a herald brought a message to him—assuming he made it alive and assuming he could find Davian—the boy could die.”
“Davian has the light crystal. I can summon him right now, and he’ll be here in a couple of days.”
“The boy might not have a couple of days! He needs a guard, now!”
Zephor turned to Octirius. “Sir, you said you wanted the best. Major Davian is the best. He can second-guess the opposition better than any soldier in all of Elysia, and that includes the three of us. And you know I’d have made him a brigadier-seraph eight years ago if he hadn’t put up such a fight about it and insisted on staying in battle. Salla’s just jealous because Davian’s already racked up more medals and awards than he ever did at his age!” He turned to Salla. “You would just hate it if Davian earned another Medal of Courage and Valor, wouldn’t you, Salla?”
“Your five minutes are not up, yet, Zephor!” said Octirius. He sighed. “One of you wants Picante; the other wants Davian. Picante is available; Davian is out of the country on a mission.” He rested his chin in his hands and weighed both options silently. “Assign Picante to the boy for now and summon Davian,” he finally said. He smiled. “Both of you are scowling. That means it’s a good decision.”
“Do we inform them of the boy’s importance?” asked Zephor.
“Inform no one.”
“What is it Salla?” said Zephor.
“Gentlemen, Davian is an egotistical, battle-hardened major—”
“Leave him alone, Salla!”
“Who, mind you, is next in line to succeed both of us. We’re about to ask him to leave the heart of Morvenia to guard a little seven-year-old boy. If we don’t tell him what’s going on, he’ll think we’ve demoted him.”
“I’m sure he’ll handle it just fine,” said Octirius. “Summon Davian! And bring Captain Picante in here so we can brief him.”
Chapter Ten: The Treetop Inn
The Treetop Inn had been the most popular meeting place in the City of Ezzer for five centuries. It was located in the top of one of the tallest trees in the city, and it was one of the only buildings left from the days of Edenian when Ezzer was king. The vast tavern’s only light came from a few glow torches and patches of sunlight that poured through its multicolored crystal windows. It had plump, cushy booths for quiet conversations, immense round tables with soft perching stools for lively parties, and the best honeywine and finest service in all Elysia. The latter was due to Maurice, the Treetop’s owner and Elysia’s best bartender. The bald bartender sported the large, meaty frame of a heavyweight grappler, a smile that almost touched his ears, and brown eyes that twinkled more than a garden full of fireflies. Maurice had a way of making total strangers feel welcome, and cherubians loved it.
Today, Maurice’s smile only stretched to the edges of his cheeks, and his eyes sparkled less than normal as he threw down two mugs full of honeywine and some fried mushrooms to a few of his patrons. He was shorthanded, and he had just finished an exhausting conversation with the sprite who provided most of his honeywine.
Honeywine—once called ambrosia by the ancient Greeks—was sweeter than honey, almost as light as a fine morning mist, and went down smooth with a slight tingle. Cherubians could never drink enough of it. Sprites, and only sprites, can make honeywine. Most cherubians—even tavern owners—found them a nuisance, but Maurice took the time to listen to their silly stories and incessant prattle. The sprites rewarded his patience and friendship with the best of their product, which was why the Treetop sold the best honeywine in all Elysia.
As Maurice hurried to fill another order, he heard the door to his inn burst open and slam shut. He sighed as he felt a blast of cold air from outside. The old bartender could tell a cherubian’s personality just by listening to him open the door.
A slow opening door meant a shy one who might be peeking in to see if everything was all right before he entered. A door that opened and shut quietly meant a sneak. (That or it was one of his boys late for work trying to fly in unawares.) A door that opened and stayed open for a while meant a nice one who was holding it open for someone else. Maurice always paid special attention to those patrons because they usually tipped the best. A door that opened quickly and immediately swung shut meant a soldier; they opened the door with confidence.
This door opened and shut with a particular egotistical confidence that Maurice preferred not to deal with. A glance at the door confirmed his guess. It was Captain Picante, the overbearing, self-centered, LAF soldier with dark, greasy hair. Picante was promoted to captain six moons ago and took great pains to make sure everyone knew about it. The captain was a frequent customer who drank a lot and tipped well. Picante was also in much better shape than Maurice (who had gained quite a few pounds since his own military days), and Maurice knew enough not to anger someone like that. He kept his thoughts to himself, as well as the choice words that often flew through his head when Picante arrived.
Picante stormed through the tavern to a table near the fireplace in the back corner, sat down, and motioned to Maurice to bring him his usual. He took his knife out of its sheath and started spinning it around on its point on the table.
“He’d better not put a mark in my new table,” grumbled Maurice as he grabbed a mug and filled it with pale lager.
Picante looked as though he half-wished someone would decide to start some trouble just to give him an excuse to use his knife. Maurice was all too glad that he had chosen the back table far away from the regular customers. If Maurice had to venture a guess, he would say the captain’s poor spirits were the result of receiving an assignment he thought was beneath him. Maurice dropped a mug of fresh honeywine on the table next to Picante’s knife, which was beginning to wobble like a drunken sprite trying to dance the jelly-jig.
“Looks like you’ll be wanting more of these before the night is over, Captain,” he said.
Picante kept his eye on the spinning blade as he took a swig of honeywine and signaled to Maurice to bring him three more.
“I’ll bring ‘em right up for ya,” Maurice said. He returned to the bar and frowned as he grabbed more mugs. Picante could put down the lager with the best of them, but he rarely started out with four whole mugs. He would probably order four more, and drink up to sixteen in an hour, and then—well, then who knew what might happen.
Maurice remembered the last time the captain started out with four mugs. That was the night Picante started a fight with the good major. He ordered four mugs to start and had twenty of them emptied in an hour. Then, for no apparent reason, he walked right up to Major Davian, socked him one square in the jaw, and started a brawl that the Treetop had not seen in over a century—the reason Maurice had to purchase so many new tables.
Usually a move like that would get a poor lad killed then and there, but Picante caught the major in rare spirits. Instead of taking him out immediately, Davian toyed with him for a while and let the captain think he had a chance, the way a cat plays with a mouse before it pounces. Davian would have let Picante fly out of the tavern in nearly one piece, but Picante made the mistake of insulting and shoving one of Davian’s men.
Now Maurice never considered himself bright, but even he knew that picking a fight with Davian, Seraph Zephor’s right hand soldier, was downright foolish. But picking a fight with Major Davian’s men while Davian was in the vicinity? That was practically suicide. The slur was nothing too personal, but the shove was enough the make Davian stop fooling around. He took Picante out in two moves flat, and the captain was lucky he flew out of the Treetop alive.
Truthfully, “flew” out was a poor choice of words. “Limped out,” maybe. No, “crawled out” was probably the best term, Maurice decided. Unfortunately the poor fool was too drunk to remember how he got the sprained wing and two black eyes and apparently learned absolutely nothing from the incident. Picante continued being just as arrogant and foolish as always, and from the looks of it Maurice thought he might do something foolish again today. He figured he had better keep a close eye on the captain.
Maurice rounded up three more mugs and walked them to the back corner table where Picante continued his love affair with his knife. Just as Maurice set the mugs down, he heard a low, raspy voice behind him that made him shiver.
“If you spin it long enough, it might decide to dance for you.”
The voice belonged to one of Maurice’s newest, least favorite patrons: a gnome called Gimp dressed in a burgundy cloak, vest, and knickers with a twisted foot. No one knew Gimp’s real name.
Gimp had begun frequenting the Treetop about five moons ago, coming in for three or four days and talking intimately with a few soldiers—usually at night, and always in the back corner of the tavern. Maurice never knew what they discussed because they always stopped talking when he came around to give them their orders, but their conversations always ended with money changing hands in some form or another. They acted like someone won a bet, but Maurice suspected something else was up. He wondered if the imp might be a spy for Elysia—an illegal spy, for the trade embargoes forbade employing the neutrals as spies. Spy or no, the twisted imp never tipped, and he always gave Maurice the shivers.
As Maurice waited on other tables, he kept his eye on Picante and Gimp, who were involved in a deep conversation—a conversation that stopped when Maurice brought their brew and resumed when he left. Their secrecy made Maurice all the more suspicious. He feigned interest in wiping tables as he watched Picante and Gimp out of the corner of his eye. What he saw made him shiver more than Gimp’s beady eyes.
Gimp threw a small sack of coins on the table. Picante shook his head, and Gimp added another. Picante glanced around the tavern as he pocketed the coins. The gnome passed him an envelope with a sneer, stood up, and limped out of the tavern. Picante read the contents and threw both the envelope and the letter into the fireplace.
Maurice practically rubbed the polish off one of his poor new tables. “What kind of business are you doin’ in my Treetop, Captain?” he muttered. He had taken great pains to build the Treetop’s reputation, and he refused to tolerate anything illegal taking place in his tavern.
Night fell before Davian and his unit found a suitable campsite. They finally discovered a secluded spot between a few huge boulders next to a good stream, which indicated that they had traveled much closer to northern Morvenia—closer to the end of their mission. That filled Davian with both delight and remorse. As much as he hated the Morvenian wilderness with the bugs, the stench, and the filth, he loved being on assignment—especially when the streams were clean and pure and when winter’s chill scared away most of the bugs. He took a large swig of water from his canteen and eyed the others as he unpacked. Josephi was finishing up the day’s mapping; Snead was making arrows; and Marcus was practicing with his swords. Eric was perching just beneath the tallest boulder as the lookout.
“I wonder,” said Snead as he tied a crystal tip to a brand new shaft. “Poisonwood hurts us, right? But not the scabs. That’s why they can shoot it. Melts right through our skin, but it doesn’t do a thing to theirs.” He turned back to his arrow in deep thought.
“Go on,” said Eric after a long pause. Having to watch the horizon for mornachts made it hard for him to follow the conversation.
“Well, maybe something grows in Elysia that would hurt the scabs the way poisonwood hurts us. Maybe a flower. Something that smells sweet. Maybe we could rub some primrose sap on our arrows to find out if it burns through them.”
“Not a bad idea,” said Eric.
“Better than these crystal tips anyway,” continued Snead. “Wouldn’t kill them automatically with light pulses. Make them suffer a bit, just like poisonwood does to us.”
Marcus stopped his sword practice and took off his helmet to wipe the sweat off his head. “If so, it’ll take them longer to explode. That would get too confusing.”
“It would mess with your timing, you mean,” said Eric.
“Definitely.” Marcus replaced his helmet and resumed his practice. “We’d be ducking behind boulders before we needed to, and we wouldn’t be able to use them as bombs because they’d be too busy suffering. Give me a freshly killed scab, and I’ll give you five more. A suffering scab gets me nothing but an annoying screech in my ears.”
Snead said, “It would give me a big smile. What do you think, Major?”
“When you focus on making your enemies suffer, you’re not focusing on winning the battle,” Davian said. “Too many of our soldiers are still fighting because some scab decided to try to make them suffer instead of trying to win the battle. I want you to focus on winning the battle, Snead.”
“Yeah, that too,” said Marcus, pointing at Davian.
Eric laughed. “Do you ever have an answer that doesn’t sound like it came out of a military manual, Davian?”
“I do for non-military questions,” Davian said with a smile. He pulled out his mat and started to unroll it, but stopped and put his hand in on the knife in his boot. A few bushes in the woods behind him rustled, yet the wind had died. After another rustle, Davian whipped around and threw his knife at a form that crouched near a boulder about ten yards away.
The knife hit the intruder’s chest with a “clang”.
…To Be Continued in A Prophecy Forgotten