CHAPTER 17

A GAME OF RUNES

"Checkmate" Bernadette announced while sliding her bishop into its final strategic position.

"Again?" Talos exclaimed as he stared at the board in disbelief. "Are you cheating?"

Bernadette snickered as she pointed at the pieces she had collected at her brother's expense. "Your tactics are too aggressive, I keep telling you that. You need to be able to analyze a battlefield and determine when it's time to attack and when it's time to defend."

"To hell with that!" Talos sneered. "A good defense is pure offense!"

"Sometimes that's true, but not always." Bernadette retorted. "Generally, it's important to weigh your gains and losses, but above all else … you should protect your most precious pieces."

"What's the fun in that? I'd rather sail by the seat of my pants. Besides, your style sounds boring..." Talos grumbled.

"Boring?" Bernadette asked and flinched as she shook her head. "It's called a strategy … You know what, never mind. Let's just count up our victories, shall we? How many games have I won so far? Was it five or maybe six … I can't recall..." Bernadette chuckled. "I think I've won them all, didn't I?"

"Rubbing it in, Bern?" Talos grumbled while flicking over his king. "How very petty of you."

"Petty of me!?" Bernadette scowled and twitched with irritation as she pointed at her little brother accusingly. "You're the one who was doing a victory dance every time you managed to capture one of my pieces!"

"I was raising my troop morale." Talos replied dismissively.

"Morale? You were raising the morale of a bunch of lifeless game pieces?" Bernadette asked.

"They have feelings too, Bern!" Talos retorted. He leaned across the table and pointed at one of his captured pawns. "Take Larry for example."

"And you named them..." Bernadette sighed.

"Larry joined the royal guard so he could learn how to dance." Talos said in a soft voice.

"That doesn't make any sense..." Bernadette muttered. "Why would the army teach him how to dance?"

"He didn't care, Bern!" Talos hissed. "He was gonna bring his dance to the battlefield, he was gonna bring something beautiful to your ugly little war. But now look at him, Bern. Look what YOU did to him! Poor, poor Larry … his legs got blown off. How is he going to dance now, huh?" Talos wiped a small tear away. "You heartless monster."

"It's an inanimate object." Bernadette grumbled.

"Tell that to his inanimate wife and kids!" Talos scowled. "Tell that to little Timmy Pawn when he has to eat out of the trash, because daddy isn't coming home with the medicine he needs!"

"You NEED a psychologist, Talos." Bern growled.

"I AM a psychologist, Bern! A doctor of life lessons, if you will!" Talos retorted.

"Talos, shut up before I hurt you..." Bernadette threatened angrily.

"Uh … is anyone hungry?" Lyon asked nervously while watching the bickering siblings. "We have excellent chefs and her Majesty did order that you be treated like guests..."

"Guests?" Talos asked and rolled his eyes. "What kind of host locks their 'guests' in a room? Not a very good one, that's what."

"Talos, don't be rude." Bernadette grumbled while kicking her brother under the table. "Queen Falzrahm is simply taking precautions. Don't forget that we're unannounced foreign dignitaries."

"I'm very sorry about all of this..." Lyon apologized and bowed her head politely. "When we arrived in Sol Falena, her Majesty suddenly ordered your confinement to this room which was unexpected for all of us. I believe that since we're in the capital of the Queendom now, her Majesty felt it was imprudent to have foreign military officers wandering the halls of the palace freely."

"You'd think that being related to Ferid would pull us some extra favors." Talos grumbled. "If she doesn't trust us, why didn't she just leave us in Stormfist?"

"Keep your friends close and your potential enemies closer, I assume." Bernadette replied softly. "Anyway, she spared our lives." She reminded and gave her brother a stern look as she spoke. "Let's not push our luck, shall we?"

"Yeah, I guess..." Talos sighed and shifted his attention to Lyon. "So this Queen of yours, is she always so moody?"

"I … well ..." Lyon turned a shade of red and grew flustered by the comment. "H-Her Majesty can have her good days and her … not so good days. Today … is not one of the good days."

"Has Ferid arranged for our transportation yet?" Bernadette asked. "It's been over a week..."

"His highness is still making arrangements for that." Lyon replied apologetically. "As you already know, travel between inner Falena and the coast is heavily regulated. Making arrangements for a transport vessel can take time … I'm sorry for the inconvenience."

"Enough apologizing, it's not like it's your fault." Talos snickered while pushing Lyon jokingly. "Besides, I've only had a few days to hangout with Ferid. I'm going to miss that guy when it's finally time to leave..."

Bernadette slowly shifted her gaze to her brother and simply stared at him in a quiet moment of reflection. She bit her lip for a minute and began to reset the game board. "You're quite fond of Ferid, aren't you?"

Talos arched a brow as he turned to face his sister. "Why do you ask?" He wondered and narrowed his eyes at the girl with suspicion. "Why are you interested anyway? What are you hiding from me, Bern?"

"Hiding something, from you? Talos, that's absurd!" Bernadette laughed softly. "Where do you get these ideas?"

"Yeah, you're definitely hiding something, but I already know the truth..." Talos said with a quiet nod. "Did you think I wouldn't find out?"

"Truth?" Bernadette asked with a look of shock.

"Bern, you should have just told me..." Talos interrupted while shaking his head. "I would have understood."

Bernadette was silent as she stared at her brother breathlessly. How did he know? She pondered a hundred possibilities, but eventually just sighed softly and lowered her head. "Talos, I was planning to tell you, eventually..."

"You're jealous of Ferid!" Talos exclaimed while pointing at his sister accusingly.

Bernadette twitched as she stared at Talos with bewilderment and for a moment she was speechless, just completely dumbfounded by the ridiculousness of the accusation. She slowly palmed her face and almost laughed out with a mixture of relief that he was ignorant to the truth and disbelief that she had momentarily thought him clever enough to uncover it in the first place. "So you figured it out, did you? I guess I couldn't hide it from you, could I?"

"Now that Ferid is back in the picture, you're afraid that he's going to replace you!" Talos pondered aloud and shook his head disapprovingly. "Oh, Bern … you poor, sad, lonely, petty woman..."

"Yeah, that's me..." Bernadette grumbled sarcastically while rolling her eyes. "What can I say? Now that Ferid is back, it's like you don't have time for me."

Slowly, Talos stood from his chair and extended his arms to his sister. "Bern … get up."

Bernadette flinched as she stared at her brother in bewilderment. "What are you doing?"

"You and me..." Talos replied while beckoning with his arms. "Come on, you and me … We're gonna hug it out!"

"Talos, I don't want to." Bernadette grumbled.

"Bitch, I'm not asking what you want!" Talos scowled while gesturing for Bern to stand. "Now get up, get over here and lets do this! Come on!"

Reluctantly, Bernadette stood from her chair and instantly had her personal space violated by Talos. The young sailor quickly wrapped his arms around his sister and hugged her tightly. "Do you feel that, Bern? Do you feel that? That's love."

"I swear, you get more annoying everyday..." Bernadette replied despite smiling.

"Haha, come on Bern-" Talos began to laugh, but paused when his attention drifted to Lyon. Slowly, he released his sister and cocked a brow as he stared at Lyon with concern. "Hey … Lyon, are you … crying?"

Lyon quickly wiped away a tear from her cheek and laughed softly as she stood. "I'm sorry, it's just that you looked so happy. You and Lady Bernadette share a wonderful bond. I'm just so happy for you … I'm not making sense, am I?" She shook her head and laughed. "I'll go get us some tea and snacks, okay?"

Before either Talos or Bernadette could utter a word, Lyon quickly hurried from the room. A moment of silence followed the outburst and after some thought, Bernadette punched her brother on the arm.

"Ouch! What was that for?" Talos exclaimed as he turned toward his sister.

"What did you do to that girl?" Bernadette hissed while glaring at her brother accusingly.

"Huh? I didn't do anything!" Talos replied hastily.

"Yeah, I'll bet! You look guilty of something!" Bernadette grumbled. "You didn't … you know, with that girl, did you?"

"N-No!" Talos shouted. "I didn't do anything to her, I swear!"

"By the tides, Talos..." Bernadette grumbled while shaking her head disapprovingly. "At least make an effort to be professional..."

"I'm always professional..." Talos whimpered while rubbing his bruised arm.

Bernadette sighed away her anxiety, and as she stared at her brother intently, her focus shifted toward the rune that crested the back of his hand. "Not to change the subject, but it hasn't done anything yet, has it?"

"Hm?" Talos wondered and dismissed his sister's prying with a shrug. "I knew I shouldn't have told you..."

"This is serious." Bernadette retorted while crossing her arms and staring at her brother with worry. "I want you to relay all information about that thing to me, understand?"

"Do you think it's cursed?" Talos asked while turning his gaze to the rune. "Like the rune of punishment from legends..."

"I'm not an expert of runes." Bernadette confessed and stroked her chin as she pondered. "I don't know, but it's my understanding that all true runes carry a curse in one form or another. Thank the tides that rune appears to be dormant, so let's keep it that way..."

Talos nodded in agreement and for a moment, he stared at the rune with curiosity. "Still, I wonder what it does..."

ORIGINAL SIN

"He's quite a kid, my brother." Ferid laughed gently while placing aside his tea cup. "He challenged me to a fishing competition, can you believe it?" He shook his head enthusiastically, "He almost beat me too, that's what really surprised me."

Arshtat laughed absently, almost on cue as she struggled to maintain attention despite the chaos that consumed her thoughts. She and her husband were enjoying their daily brunch on the patio of their balcony which was designed to relieve stress, but today … all that consumed her was a deep seeded anxiety.

"Is something wrong?" Ferid asked upon noticing his wife's behavior. He placed his hand upon hers and spoke with concern evident on his face. "You look distressed."

"A boat isn't coming for them, is there?" Arshtat asked abruptly, causing a rift of silence to suddenly dominate their leisure conversation.

Ferid paused for a long moment before he replied in a voice devoid of hope. "It's complicated..."

"It's not complicated at all." Arshtat replied sternly. "They are your family, our family, and they are foreign nationals as well. They must be returned to the Island Nations, shouldn't they?"

"It's as I said, it's complicated." Ferid retorted with a heavy sigh.

"Mother is keeping them hostage." Arshtat whispered while shaking her head slowly.

"They're being detained." Ferid muttered. "By her Majesty's decree, they are being detained until..."

"She works up the nerve to kill them." Arshtat interrupted.

"Until they are deemed a 'non-threat' to the Queendom." Ferid hastily retorted.

"Absurd!" Arshtat shouted angrily. "Ferid, you and I know mother … We know her … She is only bidding her time, waiting until she can justify their murder." A tear slid down the Princess's cheek. "You can sense it, cant' you? They are going to die here. I know it to be wrong, but that boy … he reminds me so much of Frey. So much, that is hurts to look upon him … Feitas, does it hurt." She placed a hang to her chest as she took short, sharp breaths. "I can not bear to see ill become of him, Ferid. It would be as though I were to live that night again, my heart couldn't weather such pain … not again."

Ferid swallowed a breath of air and quietly gazed upon his wife. His chest tightened as he felt an insurmountable guilt crush his very soul and after a moment of thought, he slowly placed his hand upon hers. "Arsh, I … I have to tell you something extremely important. I want you to understand that I will not let anything happen to them, because … Talos is ..."

"Your Highness!" A guard shouted as he rushed into the room and quickly took a knee. "My Lord, the city is under attack!"

"What!?"

THE COMING STORM

"To think that it would be under my nose for so long..." Wendy laughed hollowly and braced her arms upon the counter of her desk as she struggled to contain the burning rage that boiled in her chest. "Barrows, you narrow minded little fool … to think you would betray me. It's almost amusing in its absurdity. How could you not think that I wouldn't find out? To think you would keep a true rune from me? Foolish little man!" She shook her head and laughed out. "What a fool, truly … what a babbling little fool!"

"A dead fool, you mean." A blond man in black armor added. Sporting red eyes that flickered with malice, the stranger sneered as he slowly raised the severed head of Lord Barrows in his left hand. "I have to admit that I enjoyed this mission immensely. It's not everyday you task me with wanton murder."

"Sir Yuber, murder isn't the proper behavior for a Queen's Knight..." Wendy teased as she approached her companion.

"Queen's Knight … right." Yuber muttered with an irritated twitch. "I would sooner slice that hag of a Queen into pieces. Then the other two hags. Then the other knights. Then the kitchen staff and the cleaning people..." He licked his lips and chuckled devilishly. "It'd be a glorious sight..."

"I am certain it would, but all good things in due time." Wendy assured and gazed at the severed head. After a brief inspection, she scowled as she waved it aside. "What a disgusting ball of fat and ego. Dispose of this filthy thing..."

"Where?" Yuber inquired with a tone depicting his lack of enthusiasm.

"In the sewer, in the gutter, in the Feitas for all I care!" Wendy hissed.

"Out the window then." Yuber sneered and promptly threw the severed head through an open window, but not after slicing it into fine chunks with a rapid blur of sword strikes. A shimmer of light danced from Yuber's blades as he spun them effortlessly before sheathing them eloquently.

"You have kept your blades sharp..." Wendy muttered, having watched the mutilation with great satisfaction. Laughing softly, the witch reached for a large sack of runes and scrolls and tossed them to Yuber's feet. "Long have you concealed your fangs, Sir Knight. Rest assured, tonight you shall dine until your belly bursts. There is a storm on the horizon, you know..." She said with a sinister grin. "Place these runes about the city and wait for the signal. When all is at its proper time, bring the girl here."

"What of the royals and islanders?" Yuber inquired.

"Kill any you encounter, save the boy." Wendy replied coldly. "This must be executed skillfully, else we disturb the catalyst and ruin the moment."

"It would be more fun to just kill them all." Yuber sneered.

"When the runes are within my possession, splurge on the carnage to your hearts content. But not until that moment, understand?" Wendy said coldly. "Now go, there is much work to be done..."