Finn rushed to his lover and checked the wound, making sure moving him would not cause further damage. He fell to one knee and slid his hands under Max’s arms and began dragging him toward the cover of the tower doorway.
“We’ve got company!” Micah shouted from somewhere near Finn. “They’re coming from everywhere!”
Arrows rained down on them from the top of the tower and the roofs of the nearby buildings. Their werewolf escort took the brunt of the assault, but Finn was too concerned with dragging a limp Max out of danger. The arrow protruding from his back was deep in his flesh, and Finn worried it was already too late to save his lover.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Max was supposed to live on, while Finn gave his life in Ivan’s cause, and not the other way around. A battle raged in Finn’s mind as he slid Max’s body across the stone. His duty to Ivan warred against his need to preserve and defend Max, but mostly he was consumed with anger. How could any of this have happened? Everything was going so well!
Ivan stood stoically in the doorway, allowing Finn to pass him as he watched the battle unfold. Zach pulled back as well, standing next to Ivan and breathing heavily, eyes wide and frantic as he watched the slaughter of the werewolves. Some of the wolves were still fighting, and had made it to the walls which they were desperately trying to climb to get to the elves before arrows found them. Some of the riflemen were hidden behind whatever cover they could find and were firing back, but they were quickly falling under the sheer number of arrows coming their way.
It was then that Puck chose to arrive. Finn sensed his arrival as soon as the goblin materialized behind him, and he let his rage lead him. He let Max down gently and then immediately spun on his heel, swinging his other leg out wide as he crouched and swept Puck’s legs out from underneath him. Puck fell to the stone floor with a heavy thud and Finn was immediately on top of him, his fist smashing brutally into Puck’s face.
“You!” Finn roared, pulling back for a second punch. “You led us into a trap!”
“I’m not in control of my own body,” Puck said, and as if to illustrate the point, he didn’t struggle at all as Finn smashed his fist into Puck’s face again. “I’m sorry.” Puck whispered, glancing over at Max.
“That’s not good enough!” Finn shouted, crushing Puck’s nose with a third strike. He then dropped Puck to the floor and returned to Max. His breath caught in his throat as he saw Max stir, breathing shallowly.
“Finn, we have to fight,” Micah said from the doorway. “Our allies are dying out there.”
Finn didn’t bother to look up. His attention was now fully on Max, “Micah, I need to protect Max,” he said, kneeling down at his lover’s side and lifting his head gently, setting it in his lap. He reached for the arrow to see just how serious the wound was. “You need to get Ivan and Excalibur to Oberon so that we can end this.”
“Excalibur won’t be enough to kill him,” Ivan said, shaking his head as he peered out into the plaza. Finn glanced up at him in surprise and then followed Ivan’s gaze into the plaza, where it now appeared as if there was an entire army of werewolves and humans rising from the dead to fight the elves. Finn had seen Ivan use such illusionary tactics before, but he knew it would only make a difference for a little while before the elves realized these new opponents weren’t real.
“But that’s what Puck . . .” Zach started, and then looked to where Puck was rising to his feet. “Shit. Did you lie about that too?”
“Not exactly,” Puck said. “Faust made a prophecy many years ago and—”
“There’s no time for that nonsense,” Ivan interrupted, looking at Micah. “Where are Nevala and Tristan? Their phoenix blood could help us.”
“They’re searching for something called ‘The Spirit Pool’,” Micah replied. “Do you know of it?”
“Yes,” Ivan sighed as Puck disappeared from sight. “And now Oberon knows where they’re going as well, though I’m sure he was going to figure it out soon anyway. He’s going to be headed there. Micah, you and Zach should get there as quickly as possible. Protect Zach. This was never his battle, but you’re the only one who can face Oberon and have any chance of slowing him down.”
“What are you going to do?” Micah asked, shifting into his feline form as he glanced back toward the plaza. With the aid of Ivan’s illusions, the wolves and soldiers were starting to make a comeback against the elves, but they were still losing.
“I made a promise that I would keep Max from harm, and I failed,” Ivan said, looking down at Max. Finn was barely listening as he tore Max’s shirt to get better access to the wound, but he did key in on the sorrow in Ivan’s voice. “Finn and I will hold off Oberon’s soldiers. I’m going to create an opening for you and Zach to get through.” Ivan looked up and met Zach’s eyes, smiling weakly. “Zach, if you think you can make it out of Avalon, I recommend you do that instead of going with Micah.”
Zach shook his head and replied with determination, “We’ll stop him.”
Ivan nodded to Micah and Zach and said, “Godspeed, you two.”
“Get on my back, Zach,” Micah said, lowering his body closer to the ground to give Zach an easier time of climbing on top of him. As soon as Zach was balanced on Micah’s back, Micah inched forward, waiting for some sign from Ivan.
Zach gasped as a duplicate image of he and Micah rushed out into the courtyard, dodging to the side and running off in the distance. A trail of arrows followed the image, and Micah wasted no time in taking advantage of the opening the distraction had given them. He left the shelter of the tower and took a completely different route than his illusion-self had, and by the time the elves realized they had been duped he was long gone.
“How is he?” Ivan asked as he crouched beside Finn and reached out to touch Max’s clammy skin. He was sweating buckets and was feverish.
“Not good.” Finn shook his head as he stroked Max’s cheek. “Ivan, for the first time in my life I don’t know what to do.”
“F-fight, F-finn . . .” Max muttered. He mustered all of his strength and let out in a hoarse whisper, “You must fight!”
Finn saw the determination in Max’s eyes and realized that Max was right. There was no way he’d be able to get through the battlefield while carrying Max, which meant the only way he’d get out would be by fighting. He shucked out of his shirt, forming a pillow for Max and letting his head down gently onto the folded garment before standing up and meeting Ivan’s eyes. “Let’s kill these bastards.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I can sense the pool ahead of us now. Oberon’s altered this part of the landscape slightly, but I’ll never forget that feeling.”
They were coming around the base of one of the hills near The Spirit Pool, and Nevala kept a wary eye on the tower at the top of the hill. There was a sentry up there, Nevala was sure of it, and he and Tristan would soon be within sight of them.
“So we’re close?” Tristan asked, keeping his eye on the path. “Good, we can end this.”
“Uh-oh . . .” Nevala said as they came around a bend in the trail. They had a perfect view of the sentry tower above them now, and standing in front of it was a group of elven warriors, with several robed figures standing in front of them. He could now see the sentry atop the tower as well, though thankfully the sentry’s attention seemed to be temporarily diverted toward the city. “We’ve got a problem,” Nevala whispered as he pulled Tristan into a crouch. “I recognize some of those in front. Those are some of the most powerful Elven mages at Oberon’s disposal. It’s going to take a lot to get through them.”
“Okay,” Tristan said, watching the elves warily, “what’s the plan?”
Nevala sighed. He knew what had to be done in this situation. “You know what to do once you get inside?” He asked, keeping his gaze on the sentry.
“Yes,” Tristan replied, “as long as Scheherazade can be trusted.”
“She can be. There’s no reason she’d have to lie,” Nevala replied, though he wasn’t as confident as he sounded. Without knowing what Scheherazade had actually proposed to Tristan, he couldn’t be sure if it was legitimate or not, but he couldn’t worry about that now, and so he chose to instill faith in Tristan instead. “Oberon may be her son, but she wants him dead as much as anyone does. I’m as sure of her intentions as I can be, and if she told you what to do then I’m sure it’s accurate. Are you sure you can pull it off?”
“Yes,” Tristan replied.
“Then the plan is for you to get to the Spirit Pool,” Nevala said, sparing a glance for Tristan with a slight smile. “I hope to see you when it’s over, Tristan.”
He jumped up and began moving toward the elves, putting as much distance between himself and Tristan as he could before the sentry turned his way and noticed him. He tried to stay low to minimize the chance the others would see him as well, but once he got close enough that would no longer be an option, or his intention.
“Wait!” Tristan whispered harshly, trying to get Nevala’s attention, but Nevala ignored him and kept moving, hoping Tristan would have the good sense of staying hidden while Nevala distracted the elves above him.
He was halfway up the hillside when the sentry turned his way, and immediately shouted down to the group of soldiers standing at the base of the tower. He then pointed in Nevala’s direction as Nevala continued to close the distance between them. He slowed his advance as the elves turned to face him, stopping twenty meters away.
One of the robed elves took a step forward. He was an ancient man with wrinkled skin and long, wispy grey hair, but Nevala knew better than to judge him off of his frail appearance alone. He recognized this particular elf as a mage of great skill, trained in shamanic arts long lost to the rest of humanity.
“Merlin!” the ancient elf called, wearing a scowl. Nevala smirked that the elf recognized him as well. “You dare show your face here?”
“I had some unfinished business,” Nevala said, setting himself into a fighting stance designed for fluid movement. He could sense the eyes on him, and knew arrows were trained on him from several angles, but he refused to be unnerved. “I’m here to kill your king.”
“You’re going to have to get through us first,” the ancient elf replied.
“That would be the plan,” Nevala said, and then he turned on his heel and dashed toward the tower and the steep edge of the hill beyond it. If the elves wanted to kill him, they’d have to catch him first.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Zach held tightly to Micah’s back as they dashed through the palatial complex, attempting to head in the same direction they knew Nevala and Tristan had gone. Micah was staying toward the edge of the city, trying to keep the hilltops in the distance within his sight.
They pulled up short when Puck appeared in front of them. Micah let his bestial side show as his feline lips curled back in a snarl, growling at the goblin.
“Oberon is heading toward the Spirit Pool,” Puck said, gesturing to a different path than the one Micah had been starting to head down. “You need to go this way.”
“I’m done listening to you, goblin,” Micah spat. “Get out of my way or die.”
“He’s not focused on me anymore. As soon as he found out where Nevala and Tristan were headed, he started in that direction to cut them off,” Puck said, pleading with Zach. “Come on, I can get you there.”
“Point me in the right direction and then get out of the way!” Micah roared.
“Follow me, please,” Puck said and then disappeared from sight, reappearing some distance down the street. Micah uttered a low growl and started moving in that direction.
“It’s okay, Micah, we’re going to save Tristan,” Zach said consolingly, leaning forward so he was close to Micah’s ear.
“I don’t want to think about that, I just want to get there before I have a reason to,” Micah replied as he rushed to catch up to Puck.
“What are we going to do when we get there?” Zach asked.
“You’re supposed to be headed for the portal, aren’t you?” Micah replied. “I thought that was what Ivan ordered you to do.”
“I don’t take orders from Ivan,” Zach said, gripping the sword in his hand even tighter. “Tristan is in danger, don’t you think I want to help save him? Besides, we have to honor Jacob’s memory, don’t we?”
Micah slowed as he waited for Puck to reappear again to ensure they were moving the right way and took the opportunity to nod in response. Zach was glad Micah wasn’t going to insist he leave, as he didn’t want to face that conflict when others’ lives hung in the balance.
They continued to follow Puck as they neared the hilltop, but then they began to notice large pillars of fire erupting in the city ahead of them. Before they could react to it, Nevala stumbled into view, a sword-wielding elf following after him.
“Look, it’s Nevala!” Zach said, excited they’d caught up to at least one of their friends.
Nevala let the elf charge him and then dexterously dodged to the side as the sword was thrust at his midsection. He then slammed his palm into the elf’s face, enshrouding it in flames as he connected. The elf’s head exploded in a shower of blood and gore before Nevala let him drop to the ground. He didn’t waste any more time with the elf and began moving away again, clearly running from something.
“I wonder where he’s headed,” Micah asked as he caught sight of Puck again moving in a different direction. “Tristan isn’t with him, which means Tristan is alone. We have to hurry.”
“What about Nevala?” Zach asked. “Shouldn’t we help him? Besides, can’t he get us to Tristan more quickly?”
“You’re right,” Micah replied, “And I’d definitely rather trust Nevala than Puck.”
They started down the street toward Nevala, and as they watched Nevala was lifted from the ground and flung several feet away, slamming into the wall of a building next to him. A robed figure came around the corner, walking toward Nevala calmly as he shook his head and climbed to his feet.
“Where are you two going?” Puck asked as he appeared next to him.
“That’s no longer any of your concern, goblin,” Micah replied. “Go tell your master that we’re coming for him.”
They left Puck in the dust as Micah charged toward the robed figure, Zach leading with the sword pointed forward much as a medieval knight would charge with his lance. The robed elf turned toward them and calmly raised his hand before flicking it to the side.
Zach lost his grip on Micah as he was flung through the air by an unseen force, slamming into the ground hard on his wounded shoulder. He screamed in pain as Excalibur was flung from his hand, and then clutched at his shoulder as he struggled toward the sword again.
And then Excalibur was moving on its own, sliding out of his reach. Zach looked up to see the robed elf staring at him as the sword was lifted into the air, turning to aim point first at Nevala, who seemed oblivious to Zach and Micah’s presence.
Nevala started toward the robed elf, enshrouding his hands in flame as he darted from side to side. The elf allowed him to approach, guiding the sword as it floated through the air to line up with Nevala’s back. Zach cried out in alarm as the sword shot toward Nevala with great speed.
Micah picked himself up from the ground where he had been thrown in the opposite direction of Zach. He was running after Nevala as well, his four legs quickly gaining on the phoenix and the elf, but even his speed did not match that of Excalibur.
Thankfully, Nevala heard Zach’s cry of alarm and spun around right as the sword was about to pierce his flesh, and the sword grazed his arm rather than puncture through his back as it had been intended. The momentum of the blow cost Nevala his balance, and he fell to one knee.
The robed elf reoriented the sword so it hung over Nevala’s head, ready to plunge down as Nevala recovered. Zach watched in horror as the sword started down, and then gasped in surprise as Micah barreled into Nevala, pushing him out of the way and taking the plunging sword into his back instead.
Micah’s body went rigid as the keen blade penetrated his flesh and came through the other side of his body. Zach screamed, thinking his friend dead, and regained his footing. He started toward Micah’s body, hoping there was some small chance he was still alive. He had seen Micah take worse wounds than this and walk away as if it were nothing, but this was Excalibur, and there was no telling what it would do to a shape shifter.
Nevala didn’t hesitate as he saw the sword enter Micah. Knowing the elf would be distracted, he rolled away from Micah and came up standing a few feet away from the elf. The elf turned to him in surprise but it was already too late for him as Nevala grasped the elf’s arm and fire surged from one body to the other. The elf barely had time to scream before the fire consumed him completely and his charred body collapsed to the ground.
“Well done, Nevala,” Micah said, opening his feline eyes again and winking with one. His body became amorphous around the sword, and the weapon clattered to the ground beneath him. “I’m glad you took advantage of my sacrifice.”
“I knew it wouldn’t kill you,” Nevala replied. “Excalibur has many abilities, but killing shape shifters is not among them. What I want to know is what you two doing here. You’re supposed to be rescuing Ivan.”
“We’re trying to cut Oberon off,” Zach explained as he retrieved Excalibur from the ground. He sighed in relief as he looked at Micah, glad to see him standing. “Oberon is headed for the Spirit pool.”
Nevala paled as he looked in the direction he’d come. “Shit. Tristan is there alone. I gave him an opening by pulling that telekinetic out of his way. Where are Ivan and the others?”
“We were ambushed outside of Ivan’s cell,” Zach replied nervously. “Max was shot.”
“We might need Ivan in order to defeat Oberon,” Nevala said with a quick nod. “I’m going to go relieve them. Head straight that way and you’ll reach the Spirit Pool. Do you think you can hold Oberon off until I can get there?”
Micah nodded. “Certainly.”
“Head toward that tower and then go around the left side of the hill,” Nevala said, pointing toward the nearby hilltop. “Micah, watch out. Don’t forget he has the ability to control flame as surely as any phoenix. He can destroy you.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Micah replied. “Hurry.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Where are they now?”
Puck felt the question in his mind as he stared down at the charred body of the elven mage Nevala had slain. Under Oberon’s orders he had teleported back to where Ivan, Finn, and Max were held up in their tower. Oberon had hoped the telekinetic elven mage could defeat Nevala, but it had obviously not been the case.
“They left,” Puck lied, though he knew resistance would do nothing but buy the others seconds. “Your forces chased them from Avalon and—”
He was ripped painfully through the ether to Oberon’s side to collapse at his feet. Oberon stared down at him with disdain, his own sword held tightly in his hand. “Do you dare to defy me again, Puck?” Oberon asked, snarling. “Do not dare keep things from me!”
Puck kept his mouth shut and refused to answer the question, knowing it would bring more pain, and it shortly did. Barely a second had passed before he was writhing on his back in agony. He was able to see one of the two towers above him, and realized Oberon was already closing in on Tristan.
He needed something to keep Oberon occupied to give Tristan a chance, and decided to let Oberon think the pain had finally broken him. He summoned an image of Micah and Zach reaching the base of the hill near them. They’d arrive soon, Puck knew, but not soon enough with how close Oberon already was.
“So, the shape shifter and the human are headed my way,” Oberon said, easing up on the pain momentarily as he studied the image. “Interesting. I’ll have to be ready for them.” His eyes zeroed in on the sword in Zac’s hand as well and scratched his chin thoughtfully. “They’re bringing me a gift as well . . . didn’t Nevala tell them Excalibur cannot slay me?”
“Well, if you’re so sure of that why don’t you let them try?” Puck taunted.
Oberon frowned as he returned his attention to Puck. “You must have told them something. What was it?”
Puck stared back at him defiantly until Oberon assaulted him mentally again. Puck had to keep from smiling at how well his plan was working, and he let each word get dragged from him. “I-I . . . I told them . . . You bastard!” he growled through the pain and made a show of contorting into the fetal position before he finally screamed for Oberon to stop. Oberon eased up on the pain again and waited for Puck to explain, “I told them Excalibur had to be wielded by someone who had your blood.”
“You believe that legend?” Oberon said with an incredulous laugh. “Faust may have had the ability to foresee the future, but even he was wrong often. So, who is the elf then? The human?”
“No . . .” Puck said, gritting his teeth. Oberon redoubled the pain again and Puck started screaming again, being as defiant as possible. “I won’t tell you anything! Bah!” He asked Oberon to stop again, knowing the sadist would continue for a few seconds longer just for fun. When he finally released his mental grip on Puck, Puck panted, “Faust had two sons while he was in North America, Zach is the younger of the two.”
“So . . . he is an elf,” Oberon said thoughtfully. “You’ve made a grave mistake, Puck. You truly thought they could defeat me?”
Puck sighed, wiping the sweat from his brow. “It was worth a shot.”
“I’ll defeat them and then I’ll deal with Tristan and Nevala,” Oberon said, turning toward the mouth of the shallow valley between the hills. “Then all I’ll have left is Ivan and the world will finally be mine.”
They didn’t have to wait long until Micah and Zach came rushing into view, pulling up short as they saw Oberon standing, poised and calm with his sword held out to his side, sneering at them.
“Welcome, changeling,” Oberon said, meeting Micah’s eyes. “I hear you’ve come to kill me. Are you ready to meet your doom?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ivan watched Finn move through the battlefield, admiring his skill and grace as he dodged arrow after arrow and fired shots when he could. Each bullet he fired found a new home in the flesh of an elf, but it wasn’t enough. The elves kept on coming.
The few werewolves who reached the rooftops were fighting with the elves there, but they were also dying one by one, whether filled with arrows or dying at the point of elven blades. There were very few soldiers on the ground still firing at the elves, but they had managed to clear the tower itself, leaving only the two buildings on either side of the plaza occupied with enemy forces.
Finn ran out of shots in his rifle and dashed back toward the safety of the tower, dropping the rifle and reaching for Max’s rifle instead. He paused when he saw Max, giving Ivan a chance to speak to him. “Finn, there may be too many of them. My illusions will not fool them for long.”
“Ivan, you promised you’d keep Max alive,” Finn whispered, turning accusatory eyes on Ivan. “You promised he’d be kept from harm’s way.”
“I’m sorry, Finn,” Ivan said, frowning. He sighed and started taking off his clothing, earning a frown from Finn. “I wish this hadn’t happened, but the only choice we have now is to fight.”
“Why does it matter? Why does any of it matter?” Finn asked, shaking his head as he looked down at Max. Max was still breathing, but it was quickly becoming more ragged. “We were supposed to grow old together once this was over.”
“We’ll have to do our best to make sure that happens,” Ivan said as he slipped out of his last piece of clothing. He kicked it to the side and then entered a meditative trance. Finn hadn’t witnessed Ivan using his Yee Naaldlooshii abilities in many years, and he had nearly forgotten Ivan had the ability to change his form at all.
Ivan rarely used it. He resented what he had given up to become a Yee Naaldlooshii. The ritual had required he sacrifice a portion of his soul, and Ivan was half the Djinn he had once been, but at least there were perks.
His skin and muscles thickened, his form became hunched and white fur sprouted from his fur. His nose and mouth extended outward into a canine snout as his ears shifted to the back of his head to match. He was a werewolf in form, though not naturally like those who were dying outside of the tower.
As soon as he was done shifting, he stepped into the doorway of the tower and saw a familiar face coming toward them. “Nevala’s here!” he growled over his shoulder.
Finn joined him in the doorway. “Good. I can get Max to Peter and then . . .”
“Go. We’ll hold them back,” Ivan said with a smile. “I owe you that. You’ve done enough for me, Finn. Thank you.”
“Ivan.” Finn said the name with a tone of finality, seeming to sense it would be the last time he ever said it. He laid his hand on Ivan’s furry shoulder. “Good luck.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Nevala flung small balls of fire toward the elves on the roofs above him, setting several of them alight before the rest realized he was there and had their attention drawn toward him. But their arrows were trained elsewhere instead, as an image of Nevala appeared several feet ahead of him, and this was pierced with arrows in his stead. Ivan had given him an opening.
With a quick dash across the plaza, Nevala was inside the tower, arrows following after him. He erected a shield of fire around him to burn any of the missiles which came close to striking him, but let it drop as soon as he was within range of the tower.
While he expected to see Ivan, Finn, and Max inside, he instead saw Finn carrying Max and running off to the side, escaping the battle. How Ivan had caused the misdirection in this case Nevala didn’t know and didn’t care; his focus was on the werewolf he recognized from centuries earlier, whom he had hoped to never see again.
“Greetings, Ivan,” Nevala said cautiously, ignoring the feelings of dread in his heart. Ivan’s piercing icy blue eyes normally had little effect on him, but when they stared from the face of the wolf, it reminded him of his time spent among the Anasazi. “I heard you were in need of assistance. Are Finn and Max okay?”
“Finn is getting Max to safety,” Ivan replied. “He’ll be of little use now, anyway. We have to get to Oberon and kill him. Mortals will only get in the way.”
“Tristan is at the Spirit Pool,” Nevala said. “He told me Scheherazade has found a way to stop Oberon. What would she not tell me, Ivan?”
Ivan’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Scheherazade’s name, but he shook his head and replied, “I’m not sure.”
“This isn’t the time to be secretive, Ivan. We’ve got Elves pouring down on top of us and our friends are doing battle with the man we swore a blood oath to kill,” Nevala spat in frustration. “Why did you not go after Oberon yourself?”
“I knew Puck would be listening. I had to offer him a distraction,” Ivan said, shrugging. “I also know Micah can take a lot of punishment before he’s defeated. Hopefully that will buy us enough time to—” He cut off with a grunt of pain as an arrow came shooting through the doorway of the tower and stuck him in the shoulder.
“Ivan!” Nevala cried as he helped his friend get out of the open doorway.
A rallying cry rose up in the plaza as the remaining elves descended from their positions on the rooftops, their arrows trained on the entrance to the tower. “For King Oberon!” They shouted, over and over again as Nevala and Ivan remained hidden inside, the last of their opponents.
“Nevala . . .” Ivan said, then paused as he broke the arrow off in his wound. He nodded in determination and looked back at the open doorway. “It’s time to kill my son. Whatever happens to me, you make sure he dies.”
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