Second-last segment in Chapter 1, and then onto the insanity of Realm politics.
Compared to that, the Fair Folk are practically normal.
Four weeks after Serafinâ€™s arrival, the Realm returned to Hazelton.
Serafinâ€™s first and only warning of it came as she sat at dinner with the other inhabitants of the castle. In the past few weeks, Alakazar had taken to joining his wives at dinner, and it was fast becoming an occasion that everyone looked forwards to. Tonight, however, halfway through the main course â€“ a rib steak that had come from no animal Serafin could recognize â€“ Alakazar sat bolt upright, his eyes going unfocused. â€œTheyâ€™re here.â€
â€œWho?â€ Jassa raised an eyebrow, looking to the others, who shrugged or shook their heads. Alakazar did not immediately respond.
â€œMayaâ€™s Love is leading them astray, but it is not enough. I must go, my loves. The Dragon-Bloods are coming.â€ Standing smoothly, he bowed once, then turned and strode out. Tien, Teluriâ€™s nightingale, flew from her perch after him, and Flicker uncurled from Serafinâ€™s lap and padded down the corridor behind. For a moment, the four wives simply looked at each other, and then Serafin spoke.
â€œWell, no sense letting this food go to waste.â€
Meanwhile, in the woods south of Hazelton, the 17th Expeditionary Force out of Greyfalls was rapidly becoming confused. Their mission had been simple. Ten Dragon-Blooded and a force of 750 mortal soldiers had marched south from Greyfalls, in order to quickly suppress the rogue god in Hazelton before turning west to attack Lookshyâ€™s position, drawing forces away from the main Realm offensive occurring along the coast. The task had seemed simple enough, and the general agreement of the troops was that this â€˜attackâ€™ would be a good warm-up for the main campaign. Perhaps the god had defeated three Dragon-Blooded, but that was in his own sanctum, and these were prepared for godly tricks; with charms against dematerializing and protections against gods, they rode in to conquer.
However, the problems had started immediately. As the force entered the woods south of Hazelton, woods that according to their maps stretched for slightly under a mile, they found that the branches overheard knotted together, all but blocking out the sky. The outriders that were sent ahead and behind to keep aware in case of an ambush failed to return, as did the larger forces sent to look for them. Walls of brambles and impassible tangles forced constant detours, and after an hour the team was forced to admit that they were thoroughly lost. Gathering the troops, Rennin Kaz had to admit that his expedition had not begun well.
â€œIt is some sort of godly trick.â€ Varat Archas, the chief Immaculate attached to the expedition, looked around the woods grimly. â€œHe has warded the valley to protect it. This is not a power I would expect of a wind god, but he may have alliesâ€¦â€
â€œLovely.â€ Kaz turned, as one of his lieutenants approached. He had sent the boy to check with the various talons. â€œWell?â€
â€œUhâ€¦ we seem to have lost three hundred men in the woods, as well as three of our Dragon-Blooded officers.â€ When the Dragon-Bloods paused in their discussions to turn and stare in shock, the man shrugged. â€œWhenever someone gets any distance from the main body, theyâ€™re justâ€¦ gone. Itâ€™s happened to entire scales. And the smaller that the force gets, the closer that distance becomes.â€
â€œImpossible. Where are they going?â€ He frowned thoughtfully. â€œI havenâ€™t heard any screams, there were no signs of combat. How can they justâ€¦â€ He paused again, cocking his head. â€œDo you hear something, Lieutenant?â€ Turning, he saw the lieutenant walking away, towards the rear of the company. Then the sound became more clear.
It was music. Beautiful, soul-touching music, and it called him in the base of his soul. For a moment, he felt an almost overwhelming need to go and find the source of that music, to dance and laugh and be free of this endless warringâ€¦ out of the corner of his eye, he saw Archas gritting his teeth, flames licking at his eyes, and he snapped back to himself. Spinning, he shouted out. â€œCover your ears! Coverâ€¦!â€ He stopped, realizing that the entire army had deserted him. In the moments that he had been fighting, the men had run towards the sound. He saw his second-in-command, Marai Salma, laughing as she led the retreat â€“ or was it an advance, towards somewhere else?
In moments, there were only four Dragon-Bloods standing in the woods. They looked at each other, and Archas spoke grimly. â€œThis is not the magic of a god. I have felt those strains before, long ago.â€
â€œFair Folk.â€ Kaz shook his head in horror. As he did, he saw something else out of the corner of his eye. He turned, and glared at the newcomer. â€œThis is your doing.â€
â€œIndeed.â€ The woods seemed less dark around Lord Alakazar, sitting astride his horse, smiling beatifically down at the four men. â€œI think I have demonstrated my superiority. Any attack against my people is an attack against myself. You will leave now, or you will die.â€
â€œAbsolutely not!â€ Archas let his anima flare around him, flames billowing outwards, as he strode forwards. â€œThe people of this valley need the truth of the Immaculate Order, not the deranged lunacy of the fae! There are four of us, and one of you. We will destroy you!â€
â€œHm.â€ Alakazar laughed. â€œWe are much alike, humans and my people. I never truly saw it before this. We both see the world as it is, and the world that we believe in, and we Shape the one into the other, until someone else stops us.â€
â€œIs that a threat?â€ Archas drew his twin swords, shifting his posture to fight. â€œRest assured, monster, I am more than capable of destroying you by mys- aaargh!â€ His hands flew up as a blur of darkness exploded from the woods, tearing at the straps of his armour. As his arms moved, it leapt from his hand, tearing to the bone, and latched onto his throat. For a single, shocked moment, everyone was still, and then the creature leapt again and was gone. Archas staggered backwards, blood pouring from his throat, and collapsed dead to the ground.
That was enough for Kaz. â€œAttack!â€ He cried out with fear-widened eyes. â€œQuickly!â€
The battle was short and elegant. When it ended, Alakazar waved his hand over his twin swords, wiping Kazâ€™s blood from the blades. He looked down at his opponentâ€™s corpse, and shook his head. â€œSo foolish, to continue fighting when you could not win. Thank you.â€ Turning, he looked at the other two Dragon-Blooded. One lay trampled into the grass by Midnightâ€™s hooves, barely recognizable as human. The other was sprawled out on the grass. Flicker daintily licked blood from his claws as he sat on his preyâ€™s chest. Walking over, Alakazar laughed, picking up the little cat. He looked into Flickerâ€™s eyes, and the cat licked his nose happily.
Murmuring softly, Alakazar leapt onto Midnightâ€™s back, letting the cat settle into the crook of his arm. â€œYou may look innocent, little one, but never let them forget that you are a predator at heart.â€