For Tess Biondi. I thought about killing them all off then decided against it. I thought you’d appreciate that.
What?! You decided to go with that?
The unspoken question hung in the air after Phliren announced their next task. Phliren had been Bonded for his entire life and their liege-lord thought very highly of him, which meant occasionally Phliren was given the choice of missions for himself and his loyal troupe.
Once a person was Bonded, they lost all ties to anything without the world they were given by whomever held their indenture. Phliren, Quinn, Verx, Pring and the reticent Kaedem had been together, Bonded to Leir Dormond, for a dozen years.
They “acquired” things for Dormond, entertained him at his whim with mock battles or games. Sometimes they fought duels to settle his disputes with other lords or carried out clandestine revenges which would be frowned upon by his peers if they were ever acknowledged.
Though, if Phliren was serious about their next task, Quinn thought perhaps it would be better to just die peacefully now. Not really, Quinn quickly amended the thought. No sense in tempting Fates or their temperamental master, the Watcher of Souls. Verx had no such compunction, being Mytorian and not of a spiritual disposition.
“You realize you have just sentenced us to death?”
Phliren turned and glared at the rest of the group. “It was either escorting Lord Dunn Waddly to the estate on Lake Sera, attending some wedding in the foothills or this.” He paused. “Guys, we’d go half out of our minds with boredom with Lord Waddly or the pointless wedding.”
Quinn knew he had a point. Still… “The Izior Crystal? The thing’s a myth!”
Phliren shook his head. “It’s real, and I know where it is.”
“How?” Pring was skeptical.
“My grandfather was the one who put it there.”
The silence that followed his words was punctuated by the doubtful stares the rest of the band shared. This was getting more and more unbelievable by the second. Phliren did not appreciate their incredulity.
“How do you think I got here?” he said with an impatient wave of his hand. “Any halfwit can see I’m descended of the royal lines of Brevedor, yet I’m Bonded to one of the lesser lords in Cantan…”
“I wouldn’t say that so loud,” Quinn said, though what he said was true. Leir Dormond wasn’t as powerful as he would like to think, and Phliren’s red-gold hair, pale green eyes, and honey complexion marked him as Brevedorian.
Phliren waved her words away. “My grandfather stole the Izior and hid it. His entire family was sentenced to be Bonded for eternity until it was found and returned.”
“Well, that gets you out, but what about us?” Verx said.
“Come on. You guys are my family,” Phliren said. “You’re coming with me.”
Phliren held up Promises of Release one for each of the Bonded. Quinn looked at it, afraid to touch it. This could be her ticket out. She’d been bonded for longer than all of them except Phliren. Her father had a gambling problem, accumulated incredible debts to some nasty people and the rest was history.
Quinn read the Promise. It seemed to be the bonafide article, complete with Dormond’s seal and signature. She tugged at the band around her neck, welded with the magic of Bondage and unbreakable except by the same. When she noticed the nervous habit, she forced her hand to her side.
“Dormond wants the crystal bad,” Phliren said.
“Why? If the ledgends are true, he’s not strong enough to use it,” Quinn said.
“Perhaps he doesn’t know that,” Kaedem offered quietly.
“Perhaps he thinks he can sell it for a pretty coin. And we can’t be worth that much to him if he’s going to send us out on this suicide waltz,” Pring quipped. “He must think it’s worth the risk.”
“I think it’s worth the risk,” Phliren said, his face serious. “I have faith in us.”
“So, how do we do this?” Kaedem said, slipping his Promise inside his jacket.
No one knew where Kaedem was from or why he had been Bonded except Kaedem. But if he was in, that alone would sway others. Phliren held up his hand. On his middle finger was a tarnished silver ring. He twisted it to show the design, a pair of distinct mountain peaks with a large double circle above, the inner circle divided into quarters. Inside each was a different Simbolo, one for Fyre, one for Wyter, one for Ayr, and one for Eyrth.
“Where did you get that?”
“It was my grandfather’s,” Phliren said. “It shows where he hid the Izior. My mother gave it to me before she was reBonded to Countess Hertyl in Andolasia.”
“What does it mean?”
“The D’Rang Peaks,” Kaedem spoke up. “Or the Haunted Peaks if you believe the commonfolk.”
“When the sun and moon are even in the sky over the D’Rang Peaks,” Phliren agreed, tracing the double circle with one finger. “The four seals protecting it will be visible to the one who wears the ring.”
“And hopefully anyone with said person,” Pring said.
“…Fyre, Wyter, Ayr and Eyrth,” Quinn nodded. “You have the keys?”
Phliren shook his head. “There are no keys.”
Verx glared. “Spells? You really do have a death wish.”
“We can beat them,” Phliren said. “The five of us, together.”
“Well, four seals, five Bonded – at least we know one of us will make it,” Pring said with a grimace.
Quinn frowned. It was risky. The spells would claim lives if they were not disarmed properly. She looked down at the Promise in her hand. But some risks could be worth it.
“Let’s do it,” she said.
The journey to the mountains did not take long. Dormond’s sigil got them instant passage through borders and crossings that they might otherwise have to wait weeks at. Armed escorts and showy entourages of local lords showed them through principalities and small kingdoms.
None of them would go closer than a dozen leagues from the mountains and they were left to make the last part of their journey alone. Which suited all of them just fine. Phliren led them up the small mountain trails, through hidden valleys and passes, steadily upwards to the D’Rang Peaks. The shadows whispered about them, invisible things followed them. Even the animals watched them from cracks and crevices then scurried away to report on the progress of the Bonded. They arrived at D’Rang peaks at midday.
“We have to wait for the moon to rise. At that time the seals should appear,” Phliren said.
Quinn sat and ate some pemmican. Kaedem joined her. Pring and Verx paced. Phliren watched the sun. As it began to descend, the silver slip of the moon rose from the horizon. When it drew even with the sinking sun, the five Bonded stood close together with their weapons of choice held at the ready.
A shimmer in the air was the only warning they had. The seals appeared before them. The seal of Fyre, a massive dragon with wings of translucent ruby and diamond fangs; the seal of Wyter, a mermaid with flowing gold locks and a tail of pearl and coral; the seal of Ayr, a pure white pegasus with star-sprinkled wings; the seal of Eyrth, a giant with a boulder-like head and massive, moss-covered limbs.
“I thought seals were supposed to open one at a time!” Verx said, his grip tightening on his mace.
“They are. Usually,” Quinn said.
“What do we do?” Pring said.
“Not die,” Kaedem said, bringing his twin two-pronged blades up a little higher.
“But how do we unlock the seals?” Quinn asked.
“Answer a riddle,” Phliren said. “Or we kill them.”
“Kill all of them?” Quinn asked as Verx said “How do you even kill a giant? They’re made of stone!”
Then there was no more time for words. The seals attacked the five Bonded. The mermaid with her trident, the dragon with his fire, the pegasus with his hooves, and the giants with his fists in a blur of stone.
Quinn had no time to think. She was ducking, leaping, flipping, and trying not to get hit by hooves, tails, wings, and other appendages. Her scimitar was knocked from her grip by the dragon’s tail. At least that’s what she thought it was. It happened too fast for her to see.
The mountain rained down in shower of rubble, molten rock, and gusts of wind that sent one reeling. Quinn was battered about until all she could do was fend off the blows and try to stay conscious. A blurry Phliren staggered to his feet just to her left. He looked at her, his mouth opening in a shout Quinn didn’t hear. He ran towards her, barreling into her, and sending her flying as a pair of scaly claws tore up the ground where she had been standing. Quinn fell from his grasp and rolled away.
Phliren turned. He no longer held his sword and he looked like he had just run a twelve-mile gauntlet. He held up his hand and yelled something. The world became still. After a moment, Quinn forced her eyes open, twisting her head to look around. The seals were gone but the damage they inflicted remained very much in evidence.
Verx lay beside a few yards away, bloody but still breathing. Pring was bent over, gasping for breath, one arm hanging useless. Kaedem stood looking up at the peaks, the only damage a small cut above his eyebrow leaking red down his face.
The mountainside was a mess. It looked like several explosions had taken place. Several small trees were uprooted and the cliff face had gouges clawed out of it and dust hung thick in the air. Quinn turned to the other side and found Phliren lying within arm’s reach. His eye was blackened and a shard of stone was buried in his calf.
“What happened?” Quinn croaked.
“They left when I showed them the ring. It calls them but it will also send them away.”
“And the Izior?”
“They didn’t give it up.”
“We can try again tomorrow.”
Phliren shook his head, sitting up with a wince. “The spells would have taken it somewhere else. It was kind of a one-shot attempt.”
“So the Promises…?”
“Null and Void, as specified in the fine print.”
“That figures,” Pring said and Verx snorted, then coughed painfully.
Quinn sighed and lay her head back down, closing her eyes as she shifted to find a more comfortable place to lie on the broken mountainside. It had been a long shot, and she had hoped, but it had been a faint hope. “What would we do with freedom anyway?”
“I’m sure we’d think of something worthwhile,” Pring said. “And we’d probably manage to stay alive as long as we didn’t listen to the royal dimwit of Brevedor here.”
The sound of Phliren chuckling was music and Quinn smiled to herself. Though they were Bonded, they had each other. And they would survive together.
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