The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie

 

Part IV – 'A Crown of Thorns'

 

Chapter 50

 

“Charles of the Legion of Red and Black, what gives you the right to preside over this assembly? You know the wizard is the final authority in all of Icaria and according to protocol, the wizard presides over the General Council of Houses,” Hippolito said, crossing the floor to stand before Charles.

 

“But Hippolito, under the circumstances…” Charles stammered.

 

“My dear Charles, once more you cite circumstances. I always knew that whatever little power we gave you would go to your head – that’s why I was against giving you the Keys of Hadrian when it was first proposed. That was an honor that should have gone to a noble, not a commoner like you.” By now Hippolito stood directly in front of Charles, whom I noticed had retreated a few steps as the head of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy approached him.

 

“But Hippolito, surely you realize that we’re dealing with a completely unorthodox situation,” Charles continued, almost pleading.  “The wizard and king of Icaria, along with all of the princes and scribes of the royal and imperial houses, were to be interred here at the Academy along with The Legion of Red and Black, the Magisterial Seraphim comprising the Wizard’s Imperial Guard, and the Thrones comprising the Army of Icaria. Resurrection was to occur a hundred years after stasis was begun. I’ve just spent the last five hours informing you and the other princes of the houses of our current situation.

 

“As I’ve told you, resurrection occurred over twenty five hundred years after stasis, and not everyone made it to the Academy. The Wizard and King were lucky that despite their stasis unit being lost, it was still preserved. The Arch Duke of Altamos, who was also lost, fortunately survived although Prince Akteon, who was interred with him, did not. A few of our band are still missing and quite possibly dead. Somehow the orbs, which were to reside with each prince, got scattered; Cody had the orb of the snake in his stasis unit; we all know it should have been with you, Hippolito. The orb of the bat, which was to be under the protection of Prince Akteon, somehow ended up sitting on a table in the abbey.

 

“The worst part of all is the substantial memory loss suffered by those whose stasis units never got to the abbey. Those of us who were secured here preserved most of our memories; that is remarkable considering the long period of time that has passed. I suspect that was because of the high doses of Darroot tea that were administered to us, but those who never made it here, like General Lancelot, the ambassadorial arch duke, and the king and the wizard, have incurred serious damage to their memories. Some of those memories have returned, and I remain hopeful, but there’s still much of which they have absolutely no recollection.”

 

“Thank you for once more lecturing us Charles, and thank you for your litany of excuses,” Hippolito said, smiling benevolently as he cast his eyes around the room, addressing the princes and scribes. “You’ve always had a streak of disdain for the aristocracy, and once again you show your true colors. Red and Blacks have their place, but none have ever been titled – there’s a reason for that, you know.” Hippolito continued, smirking at a pale-faced Charles. “Just because you bring a dog into your house and care for him, doesn’t mean you let him sit at the seat of honor at your table. If he’s an obedient cur, he lies at your feet and is happy for the scraps you throw him. The fact is Charles, we have a wizard and a king whom we’re expected to follow and obey, yet they don’t even know who they are or what they’re supposed to do.”

 

As Hippolito continued to upbraid Charles, I turned to look around the circle. All of the princes and scribes were giving the handsome young prince their full attention. As I looked behind me, I could see what appeared to be looks of adoration from the line of angels who made up the Legion of Red and Black. It was quite obvious to me that the angel now lecturing Charles had somehow acquired a great deal of influence among many in the room. Whether that influence translated into power was something I knew I had to find out. I turned back to the center of the circle, focusing on the confrontation between Prince Hippolito and Charles, while at the same time preparing for what I realized I must do.

 

“… And furthermore…” Hippolito continued, but was abruptly cut short.

 

“… And furthermore, you are absolutely right, Your Imperial Highness,” I said, standing up and beginning a trek across the floor to where he and Charles were standing. “How can anyone be expected to obey a leader who doesn’t show leadership?”

 

Hippolito’s eyes rested upon me and narrowed as I continued to approach him.

 

“Thank you, Charles,” I said with a polite smile, “but his Imperial Highness, Prince Hippolito of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy, is correct. It is my duty as the Wizard of Icaria to preside over this assembly.”

 

Charles eyebrows shot up into his forehead.  From the corner of my eye, I could see Nic looking intently at me. A quick glance to Cody revealed the tiniest hint of a smile. The rest of the angels who made up the Council of Houses stared at me without movement or emotion. Turning my gaze back to the boy standing before me, I resumed speaking.

 

“I sincerely apologize to your Imperial Highness, and I thank you for your important observations. You may take your seat, for as you’ve correctly pointed out and in accordance with the rules governing this meeting, I now stand before you as the leader of Icaria, prepared to sit and act as the head of this council.”

 

“With all due respect, James of Icaria,” Hippolito said with more than a bit of a sarcasm in his voice, “we’ve seen no evidence that you’re the true wizard. Charles has already told us your fanciful story, but you come to us having absorbed only a handful of orbs. Your wizard’s tattoo is incomplete. You have none of the trappings of your office and while Charles tells us that you’ve successfully assimilated the Multiphasic Neural Synaptic Stimulation Unit we have no other evidence that you’re a wizard. Did you think we would all be that stupid? Granted, you’re an aristocrat – that’s the only reason we’ve even agreed to this charade of a meeting, but The Wizard of Icaria? Hardly,” he chuckled, just loudly enough for his laughter to echo through the library.

 

Standing unblinking and resolute before the prince, I listened intently while Hippolito spoke to me. As he made his address, I realized that his tone of voice, manner of delivery and theatrics were not being directed at me in the least, but were in reality for the benefit of the princes and scribes of the council, along with the members of the Legion of Red and Black.

 

Something about Hippolito made my skin crawl as deeply buried memories fought without success to resurface in my consciousness. I knew that he was the person Philippe told me was the Icarian chosen to be my mate. But unlike the love I felt for Nic from the very moment of our resurrection, my heart felt nothing but coldness when I gazed at Hippolito of Hypernia.

 

“What kind of trappings would you like me to produce, Hippolito?” I replied, looking up into the eyes of the prince – my voice was soft and calm in contrast to Hippolito’s dramatic, emotion-filled soliloquy. “I already wear the amulet, and as you can see by my tattoo I have assimilated some of the orbs. It’s true I haven’t absorbed them all, but I haven’t had the opportunity as yet. And I’m sure Charles has told you that Loran is alive and has assimilated some of them as well. But the fact is, I am an Imperial High Seraphim, and have successfully assimilated those that we have found without any problems or incident.” As I spoke, I pointedly remembered the incident during the initial absorption of the orb of the snake, but now wasn’t the time to mention that to anyone.

 

“Very well, Jamie, then tell us: where’s The Staff of Alexander?” Hippolito said, once more raising his voice for dramatic effect. “While it’s only an object, it nevertheless represents the power and authority of the wizard. The rightful wizard was to be placed in stasis with it. It was to be one of our signs that the one wielding it would in fact be the rightful wizard. No one’s said a thing about it since I’ve been resurrected. No one has shown it to us, and no one – especially you – has produced it as proof of their authority. The truth is, Jamie, you’re an aberration – a mistake that was never planned. It makes me sick to think that the blood of de Valčn runs through your veins. Tell me, great Wizard of Icaria – do you still dance?”

 

And with his last question a thunder of laughter rolled through the library. As Hippolito spoke my blood began to boil, but not wishing to show my hand too early, I bit my tongue as his lecture continued. Glancing at Nic, I took strength from his steely gaze of determination.

 

“Is that what this is all about, Hippolito?” I answered the young angel’s challenge with a slight increase in the sound of my own voice. “Because when I was buried in my coffin, I didn’t have The Staff of Alexander at my side? When I was brought back to life, I wasn’t clutching it in my hand? Would my possession of a lifeless, inanimate object offer such proof to you, Hippolito?”

 

Hippolito just stood glaring at me.

 

“You didn’t seem to mind what I did or didn’t do when I was betrothed to you. You had no objection about my ascension to the Seraphic Throne after Alexander died and when, because of disunion, Loran went insane. You were more than happy to support my pedigree – were you that sure I’d be a puppet in the hands of the great Imperial Prince turned King of Icaria? When I look back on those days, I’m sure I appeared stupid and docile to you – someone you’d be able to mould. But, tell me now Hippolito, would my possession of the Staff of Alexander cause you to bow down on your knees as my supplicant, which is in fact what you are?” I shouted at the prince. Now it was my turn to raise my voice, addressing both the prince, and the angels assembled before me.

 

Hippolito was silent for a few seconds. I smiled inwardly as I read his thoughts. Then, after a period of obvious internal self-examination and emotional struggle, he responded.

 

“Yes, if you had it, it would at least be some proof. We were told that the holder of the staff would in fact be the chosen wizard, but it’s obvious you don’t have it, and I can only assume that no one knows where it is.”

 

“Really Hippolito? Well, maybe I do know where it is; maybe it was buried with me.” I paused and gave the Head of the Philosopher’s House some time for my words to sink in.

 

“Impossible, Jamie. If you really have it then show us, because I know you can’t. You can’t play the little games you used to play with me in the past. Charles told me you don’t have it; you’ve never had it.”

 

“No Hippolito, I do have it. I’ve always had it,” I answered, once more making my voice soft and quiet. “And it was given to me by His Most Royal Highness King Alexander himself.”

 

At first there was stark silence at my remark, followed by raised eyebrows, sidelong glances and soft murmurs among the princes at my mention of the name of the great and revered Icarian leader. At my words I could see Charles’ eyes open wide. Nic threw me a glance of surprise at my revelation – one of the few secrets I’d kept from him – but I also noticed Prince Andrew suppressing a smile.

 

Although I’d been walking freely about the circle during my dialogue with Hippolito, I stood now in its center. My feet were directly in the middle of the innermost circle, and the three figures of the dragon, eagle, and snake surrounded me. I slowly turned, surveying the room and all of those sitting and standing around me. I closed my eyes and began to concentrate my thoughts. After a few seconds, I opened my eyes and stared at the ground, calling forth the strength I needed.

 

Bastian and Esteban were right; the elixir they’d prepared for me had, in fact, healed me. I felt more alive and much stronger than I’d ever felt before. I could feel a rush of adrenalin surge through me as the power of the orbs flowed through me with every beat of my double hearts. Narrowing my focus and redoubling my concentration, I felt my hand start to get warm and I began to experience sharp, needle-like pinpricks shoot up and down my arm. I lifted my right arm above my head, and to everyone’s surprise, it was surrounded by a lambent glow.

 

For a second time I closed my eyes, mustering all the power I could pull from deep within the core of my being. As I did, a small anomaly appeared in the air a few feet in front of me, looking like a tiny rip in the air. As it coalesced, the very air before me appeared to take on a blurred and wavy appearance.

 

 I reached out to it, extending my arm and curving my fingers as though I was trying to grasp an invisible object directly in front of me. As I began to reach into the anomaly, first my hand, then my wrist, and finally part of my lower arm began to vanish into it. To those staring at me, it must have looked as if my arm had suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared, or had been cut off. Then just as easily as I had reached into the anomaly, I slowly and deliberately began to pull my arm back. Little by little my arm, wrist, and finally hand once more appeared, and by the time my hand was again visible for all to see, it was grasping a spectacular silver staff – The Staff of Alexander, last seen and wielded by the former king himself, and meant to as a gift to his mate Loran.

 

It was made of highly polished silver and gleamed in the sunlight that poured through the windows of the royal library. As the shaft of the staff – much taller than me – rose up from the floor, four snakes could be seen intertwined around both the haft and each other. As the snake’s bodies made their way to the top of the shaft, their heads reared up and outward, so that they were separate from the main center shaft of the staff. Their eyes were bright and their mouths open, showing their fangs as if ready to strike. In the center of each of their mouths was a round gem. The central shaft of the staff itself ended in a round finial that had twelve different gems in rows of four directly on the center shaft behind each of the striking serpent’s heads. It was beautiful and impressive, and was identical to the staff I’d been given in my dream by the handsome angel – Alexander – who’d fought with me in the secret rock cave with the cool, flowing spring.

 

My arm and hand were now in full view as I gripped the revered and mystical Staff of Alexander; I lifted it for all to see and then brought the butt down on the hard marble floor in a forceful blow. The sound of it hitting the marble tiles made a loud and low clang throughout the library as if a great and heavy hammer had struck a large iron anvil. As I surveyed the room, everyone’s eyes were as wide as saucers, especially the line of angels that formed the Legion of Red and Black. I looked beyond the circle to see an expression of shock and surprise register on Charles face.

 

I turned to face Hippolito.

 

“But how…” was all he could reply.

 

“Now then, are you quite satisfied, Your Imperial Highness?” I said in a cold, toneless voice.

 

“Yes, but…” Hippolito sputtered.

 

“You asked for proof; you mentioned the Staff of Alexander. Would you like to take a closer look at it? It’s genuine, I can assure you.” And with that I threw the staff into the air. It hovered directly above my head for a few seconds, flew around the room and then darted back to me, coming within inches of the heads of the assembled princes. Once it was back in my hand, I just stood there, silently staring at Hippolito.

 

“But…” was the only word that he could croak from his mouth.

 

“Thank you, Hippolito, for your timely contributions.” I continued looking at him with a slight smile on my face. “Please take your seat as we begin the proceedings.”

 

If no one else caught the sudden change in my speech, I knew as a diplomat, Cody had. I’d reverted from referring to myself as I and had switched to the royal form of we. If Prince Hippolito was going to ask for strict adherence of the rules, I was prepared to comply with them to the exact letter of the law.

 

“We are pleased to formally convene this General Council of Houses,” I said with as much firm resolution as I could muster in my young voice. “It has come to our attention that there are a number of empty places in this circle; therefore, the first order of business will be to fill the vacant seats that we now see.”

 

A few of the princes and scribes were giving me looks of guarded anticipation. Others had looks of shock on their faces.

 

“Your Grace, pardon my intrusion,” said Prince Ivan, head of the Royal House of Science and Education, as he slowly rose to his feet. “Do you think this is the time for that? After all…”

 

“Well, your Royal Highness,” I began in a move to silence any opposition as I smiled inwardly with a feeling of self-satisfaction. They’d all wanted a wizard and ruler, and they were about to get one. “According to the rules governing the Council of Houses, it is not only the right, but the obligation of the Wizard to elevate qualified candidates to the prince’s chair if there is a vacancy. In fact, we are required by Icarian law to fill those positions as soon as possible.”

 

I looked across the circle, back to Hippolito, and as I did a flash of long forgotten memory began to bubble to the surface. I was standing in a circle… No… not just any circle… a circle formed by the ring of a Battlecom.

 

“But Your Grace, don’t you think it can wait?” the voice of Prince Ivan abruptly brought me back to the present, although the memory I had just experienced was so vivid and concrete, I could feel my hearts pounding wildly in my chest.

 

“No, it cannot.” I curtly answered.

 

As I glanced to my right, I caught a look of worry on Charles face.

 

        “At this point,” I began in a firm tone of voice, “there are three princely seats unfilled, in addition to a number of empty scribe posts. We intend to immediately fill as many as we can,” I continued. Pausing for a few seconds and taking my time to look around the room at those assembled before me, I began.

 

“The Imperial House of Diplomacy is presently without its prince. Therefore, we elevate Cody of Altamos, scribe of the Imperial House of Diplomacy and Protocol, to the office of Prince. The Arch Duke has shown great courage and resolution during our time of trial. He has stood with us throughout our journey, and he has served the First Imperial House with honor. His body bears the very scars of that service. I can think of no better candidate, or one more deserving to assume the chair. Prince Cody,” I continued, turning toward him, my friend and companion, with a broad smile, “please take your rightful seat and accept the grateful thanks of your wizard; you will have the right of choosing your scribe in accordance with Icarian law, subject only to the approval of the Wizard.”

 

Cody looked at me for a second, and gave me a slight smile. Slowly he walked around the empty chair and took the seat he had been standing behind. Then his smile faded and he looked down at the ground as the reality of what had just occurred took root. Charles was frowning; Nic sat as still as a statue, never taking his eyes from me. Looking around the room as Cody took his seat, I paused for dramatic effect and then continued.

 

“The Royal House of Defense is also without a prince. We therefore elevate Lancelot, Baron of Gast, Protector of the Crown and Commander of the Legions of Icaria, to the office of Prince. Prince Lancelot, please take your seat. Since the Royal House of Defense already has a scribe, I command you and Lord Geoffrey of Batwig to work together in governing the warrior’s house as required by Icarian law.”

 

Lance gave me a surprised look. “Please take your seat, Prince Lancelot,” I said in what I hoped sounded like a commanding voice. Lance hesitantly made his way over to the empty chair, but before he could be seated there was an outburst to my left, as Hippolito sprang from his chair.

 

“You can’t do that,” he screamed at me.

 

“Of course we can, and we just have. As you mentioned earlier, the wizard is the final authority in all of Icaria,” I responded.

 

“But the warrior’s house has a scribe. Geoffrey should be elevated to the chair and named prince.”

 

“As the wizard, it’s my duty to name the candidate I feel most qualified,” I said, my voice rising in volume and filling the library.

 

“But Jamie… forgive me… Your Grace,” Hippolito stammered. “First to commission this battle angel, who deserves no more rank than that of lieutenant, as General of the armies of Icaria and then to name him a prince of one of the most important houses in the kingdom is….”

 

“…Is choosing someone who has shown his loyalty, bravery and courage for his king and wizard,” I answered, cutting Hippolito off in mid sentence. “Prince Lancelot has stood with us from the beginning. When faced with the choice of service to us or our brother Loran, he chose, without so much as a second’s hesitation, to join us and has served us with honor. If he is a common battle angel as even he so feels, we can attest to the error of that conclusion. But it is not just for his courage and skill as a great warrior that we place the princely crown upon his head – for many can wield the sword. His compassion and kindness are much more important to us. The armies of Icaria need a leader who not only knows how to kill, but also how to be merciful, and the intelligence to know when each is called for.”

 

Lance stood bolt upright, looking neither to the left or right – his back as straight as an iron rod. The look on his face showed a mixture of shock, puzzlement, and surprise.

 

“Prince Lancelot,” I said, turning to the armor-clad angel, “please take your rightful seat, and be welcome to the Council of Houses.”

 

For a few seconds Lance stood frozen. He turned to Nic who gave him a smile and extended his hand toward the empty seat. Slowly he approached it. Still smiling, I made a downward gesture with my hand as he stood before of the throne. Still showing a puzzled look, he gingerly lowering himself to the throne’s cushion as if he might be struck with a lightening bolt for desecrating the honored seat. Turning to Cody, I watched as his face glowed with pride.

 

Finally once more noticing the much-agitated Hippolito, the earlier errant memory leapt into my head… I could hear the metallic voice of the Battlecom, I could fell sweat drip from my body and I could cleary see a figure standing before me as I felt the sharp pain in my shoulder.

 

“Please be silent and seated, my prince. The time for debate is at an end,” I forcefully said to Hippolito, whose charming aura seemed to be rapidly evaporating by the passing of each second.

 

At my words he positioned himself in front of his seat and stood glaring at me, flatly refusing to obey my order to be seated. I ignored him, but I could feel his eyes bore into me as he stared at me from across the room. I turned to Nic, and with a smile and a slight bow addressed him.

 

“My Lord, Your Most Royal Highness King Niklas of Icaria, the position of scribe of the Royal Dominion House remains empty; therefore it is your blood right as king to choose your own scribe in accordance with Icarian Law and the approval of the Wizard. Please inform us of your choice at your earliest convenience.”

 

Nic simply nodded his head, as he did I noticed him glancing at Hippolito out of the corner of his eye. Still standing directly in the center of the circle, I could see all eyes were upon me as I prepared to utter my third official pronouncement.

 

“The position of scribe of the Imperial House of the High Seraphim is also vacant. As both head of the Imperial House of the High Seraphim and the Wizard of Icaria, we choose and approve as our scribe Prince Andrew of Xannameir, Imperial Barron of Isewier.”

 

“You stupid little boy,” screamed Hippolito. “I might be able to understand your choice of Cody as prince of the Diplomatic House; he, at least, was Akteon’s chosen scribe and has an aristocratic pedigree. But then to make a common battle angel prince of the House of Defense while at the same time passing over a noble like Geoffrey is an outrage… and finally, to make a human not only a scribe, but the scribe of the Wizard’s House is HERESY.”

 

“‘Heresy,’ Hippolito?” I angrily said. “Heresy? Since we’ve been reawakened, we have heard a great deal too much of that word. This very sanctuary wherein we now stand was, until recently, overrun with a pack of verminous curs, whose only yapping cry is ‘heresy.’ The lives of hundreds have been taken because of that word. Let us hear no more of heresy.” My voice was ringing off the walls of the library. “My prince, we have shown great patience for your unsolicited comments, but know that we will tolerate no more such fractious interruptions of these proceedings. If you do not take your seat immediately, we will eject you from this council, asking the Imperial Guard to escort you from the room.”

 

Hippolito was beside himself with anger. His face, ears, and neck were by now bright red. As handsome as the young angel had been at the beginning of the meeting, he was now almost ugly, but I knew that I was far from done, and I was about to spring the final trap. I slowly looked around the room and made sure that I made eye contact with every angel both within and without the circle. I ratcheted down my emotions to a more manageable level, cleared my throat, and addressed the assembly.

 

“Would anyone challenge our right as the Wizard of Icaria to not only choose, but also elevate a candidate to the Council of Houses?” I turned and looked not only at Hippolito, but also at the members of the Legion of Red and Black. “There is now only one remaining house without a lord,” I quietly said. “There is only one house that does not have its rightful prince and leader – the House of the Metaphysical Arts… the House of the Oracle.

 

“It is my understanding that The House of the Oracle is vacant, and has been vacant from the time of its creation,” I continued. “There are many reasons for that, but one of them is because of the special bond between the Oracle and the Wizard. The Oracle of Icaria is the only Icarian totally independent of the commands, laws, and jurisdiction of the wizard. It is indeed a powerful position, created so that even the most arrogant and obstinate Wizard would be forced to listen to the voice of reason, whether he wanted to hear it or not.

 

“While the Oracle of Icaria has no direct authority or even power, he does have the power of public proclamation, and the wizard is obligated to sit silently on the Seraphic throne and listen to that proclamation. The wizard cannot silence, or in any way command that the Oracle be silent.

 

“The Oracle of Icaria is to be pure of heart and possess an inner spirit that is true to the values of Icaria. When Jonas of Amadon conceived and explained the idea of an Oracle to Croal, he described a creature that was to be a remarkable coalescence of truth, virtue, love, and purity.

 

“The seat of the House of the Metaphysical Arts was purposely left vacant as a protection to the life of the Oracle. It was rightly feared that during our period of sleep, it would be tempting for either external or internal forces to find and kill the Oracle, thus causing great upheaval within Icarian society. Because of this concern, it was decided that only the wizard would actually know and recognize the Oracle. The Band of Ondra, indelibly placed upon the body of the Oracle and denoting the office of Prince of the Imperial House of the Metaphysical Arts, is visible only in the presence of the wizard and even then, only under the proper conditions.”

 

I could see by now that the eyes of every angel assembled in the Royal Library were riveted on me. I stood firm, raised my voice in my best attempt to exude authority, and continued with my address.

 

“And now, as the true and rightful Wizard, we, James of Icaria, elevate to the chair of The Imperial House of Metaphysical Arts its prince, The Oracle of Icaria.”

 

As I surveyed the room, the looks I was getting back from the princes and scribes of the Royal and Imperial Houses were a mixture of surprise, shock, or anticipation.

 

“Commander Esteban,” I shouted out in a voice that sounded throughout the chamber. “Bring forth the Oracle of Icaria.”

 

Upon my words, the door of the library opened and through it walked Esteban, with Jonathan beside him. They made their way across the floor, walked past the chairs that formed the circle wherein I was standing. They continued forward, and finally stopped directly in front of me.

 

“My lords, princes of the imperial and royal houses, as Wizard of Icaria we elevate The Oracle Jonathan to the office of Prince, and place him on the chair of the House of the Metaphysical Arts. In addition, His Imperial Highness Prince Jonathan shall be given title to all lands and territories that make up the Duchy of Canyon Falls and as such, shall hold title to the castle of Tower Mount.”

 

As I spoke I put my hands on the shoulders of the little blind angel and turned him so that he was facing Prince Hippolito. I placed my hands above his head and began to concentrate. Anger was now fueling my powers and it didn’t take long for the normally hidden tattoo of the Oracle that had been placed on Jonathan’s arm to become visible. Slowly a small glow formed around Jonathan’s upper right arm. It grew in brightness and size until suddenly, and clearly manifested for all to see, was a beautiful, intricate, silver blue and gold tattoo, which was made up of two intertwined dragons wrapping themselves around the bicep of the small boy.

 

A cry of surprise echoed in the room and when I looked up to see who had made it, I came face to face with Charles – wide-eyed in disbelief.

 

I stopped concentrating and the tattoo immediately faded. I bent over and quietly whispered into the ear of the little boy, who made his way to the remaining empty seat in the circle. There wasn’t a sound throughout the entire room. I remained standing before the assembly and simply returned their stares. Then, just as I knew he would, Hippolito stood up from his seat.

 

“Quite the impressive show,” the prince said with a smile once again on his face. It appeared that Hippolito had regained his composure and confidence, but I could see his right hand had formed a hard fist, his knuckles standing out bone white, and I could hear the fear in his voice that he was now trying to mask with bravado. I was also in his head, reading his every thought almost as they took form.

 

“If this is how the Wizard of Icaria rules, then maybe those of us who form the Royal and Imperial Houses should carefully think about having this little dictator lord over us.”

 

“Sedition and treason, Hippolito? You will dare to bring such into our very council chambers? Tread very carefully, my prince, for our patience with you is at an end,” I angrily said, interrupting his theatrical performance. “As everyone knows, or should know, we’ve followed Icarian law to the very letter in this assembly. Do you have a problem with our ascension to the Seraphic Throne?” I said with a sarcastic tone.

 

“You have completely turned Icaria on its head,” he shouted at me.

 

“Have I?” I shouted back at him. “Or am I taking it to the place it belongs?”

 

“What nonsense are you talking about, Jamie?” Hippolito spat out my name with a sneer in his voice.

 

I looked around the circle until my eyes rested upon Prince Andrew, now my chosen scribe.

 

“Andrew, bring me the book, if you please,” I turned and spoke quietly to the young prince, who quickly entered the circle and approached me as he withdrew a bound leather volume from under his cloak. It was the same one he'd shown me a few weeks before on the Tairn, during our trip to Tahkor.

 

“Do you recognize this, Hippolito?” I shouted.

 

The head of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy looked blankly at me for a few seconds.

 

“Well, if you don’t, I’ll tell you. It’s the journal of Jonas – the original journal of Jonas, in his own hand. It chronicles his beliefs and philosophies and also his worries that he will be killed before his work comes to fruition. This was discovered by Prince Andrew, my new scribe, along with a number of other documents that you may also find quite interesting Hippolito, because I certainly did. I can tell you that we’ve been studying them now for weeks, and the knowledge they contain is very informative.”

 

“How did Jonas die?” I shouted in an accusing tone.

 

“His death was accidental,” Hippolito said. “Everyone knows that.”

 

“Do they?” I shouted back. “And what about the death of King Alexander? … Also an accident?”

 

“Yes, I was there when he was killed…”

 

“Killed?”

 

“Well… yes… killed, but it was an accident; it was during the testing of a new Battlecom model.”

 

By now I’d begun to make my way closer to Nic who was still sitting and staring at me, as were the other princes in the circle. Finally standing directly in front of Nic, I turned to face the head of the Philosopher’s House.

 

“Did you really want to be king that badly, Hippolito?” I shouted. “Did you hate me that much for choosing him?” and as I spoke I pointed a finger toward Nic.

 

“You stupid… stupid... boy,” Hippolito ranted as he paced around the circle like a madman. “I’m smarter than him, I’m more handsome than him, I’m better than him in every way. I know the idiotic story. You chose him over me to be the King of Icaria because of a child’s ball!”

 

Hippolito was so agitated that spit flew from his mouth like a rabid animal as he ranted. He even looked like a mad dog ready to attack.

 

“No, my prince,” I said, emphasizing the word ‘prince’ as if it were a curse. “That’s all you saw, that’s all you know. As an Imperial, long before I’d ever received any knowledge from the amulet, or I’d absorbed even one of the essences of the orbs, I had the beginnings of the wizard’s intuition and sight. You’re blind and a fool Hippolito, and you’ve just shown your true colors. I didn’t choose him because of a child’s ball, I chose him because when he handed me that ball I looked into his heart and his mind. I didn’t even try to do it on purpose, it happened because the love and tenderness he had as a boy were so strong within his body that he couldn’t hide it even if he tried.”

 

By now I had reached out my hand to Nic, who gently clutched it in his own.

 

“I chose him because we vowed that the old ways are dead – we don’t have to follow someone’s orders or dance to their whims. I chose him because he acted in love. I chose him because he is everything the King of Icaria should be, and I once more publicly choose him because he remains the best hope for Icaria.”

 

As I shouted at Hippolito I released my grip on Nic’s hand, then without warning and before my mate could react, I reached behind him, gripped the handle of his sword and quickly slid it from the sheath that rested between his wings. I turned and threw it across the floor at Hippolito. It rang loudly, bouncing off the stone floor as it skittered across the marble tiles before coming to rest at his feet.

 

 I strode into the middle of the circle, gripped the shoulders of the tattered and dirty tunic I was wearing, and ripped them until I was standing naked from the waist up before the Imperial Prince of the House of History and Philosophy.

 

I raised my right hand and pointed it at him….

 

“You!” I shouted.

 

Then I moved my hand so that my finger pointed to a white scar on my shoulder. Nic often asked about it when we made love and I never had an explanation… until today.

 

“Why don’t you finish off what you started?” I screamed at Hippolito. “You lured me to the Battlecom that day, you confronted me, you subdued me, and you hauled me before the Emperor. They were all looking for an excuse, and you handed it to them. It was after that I was taken to Castle Rood to be executed, but it didn’t work out the way you planned, did it my prince? It didn’t go at all as you expected. Tell me Hippolito, has Loran promised you the winged crown? Are you to be his king?”

 

Nic leapt to his feet; Bastian came charging through the circle of chairs and thrust himself in front of me, his sword drawn and ready, a fierce look on his face. Since my tunic was already in tatters, I quickly slipped it off. I was now standing before the Grand Council of Houses in my bare feet, wearing nothing more than my thin white cotton undergarment. I gripped the Staff of Alexander in my right hand and stood as still as a statue while my eyes burned into Hippolito. Hippolito, caught totally off guard, just stood there with Nic’s sword at his feet.

 

“Pick it up, Hippolito,” I shouted. “It’s what you’ve wanted to do for a long time; now’s your opportunity. Kill the Wizard of Icaria, present the Staff of Alexander to Loran and take your place beside him as his mate and king. That is, if my brother doesn’t kill you, since he seems to want to hold the dual title of king and wizard.”

 

All the other princes and their scribes sat or stood in their places as if they had been magically frozen by a spell, and although there was silence throughout the library, I could feel every eye in the room resting upon us. I was also being bombarded with a flood of thoughts from those assembled around me, thoughts and emotions that careened into my brain at lightening speed. The mood of the room was tense and as I scanned it with my mind, I could also sense pockets of fear. Hippolito continued to stand silently and stare.

 

“Captain,” I said turning slightly toward Bastian while keeping my gaze fixed on Hippolito. “Please leave the circle. This is between His Imperial Highness and myself.”

 

“But Your Grace, I…”

 

“Bastian, this is not a request, it’s an order,” I curtly stated to the commander of my imperial army.

 

For a few seconds Bastian hesitated, but then he made his way out the circle of chairs and stood on the perimeter, midway between Cody’s seat and the line formed by the Legion of Red and Black. I could see that he was still clutching his sword and his left hand now rested on his dagger.

 

Nic was standing at his seat and although he was without his sword, he also had his hand gripping the handle of his dagger.

 

“Niklas,” I said in a calm and quiet voice. “Please….”

 

That was all I had to say since I had been trading thoughts back and forth with him for the past few minutes. He knew exactly what was going to happen and he also knew that he would have to show confidence in me as his mate and the true Wizard of Icaria. Weeks of supplying him with the information that Andrew and I had gleaned from the secret writings of Jonas had prepared him for this moment, and now the only thought that came from his mind into mine as he resumed his seat was… CAREFUL, Jamie.

 

My eyes left both Nic and Hippolito and rested upon Charles, who had an expression of horror on his face. Of course this wasn’t the outcome he’d expected when he assembled the Council of Houses a few hours before, but then, he’d also not been privy to the knowledge that Nic, Andrew and I had gained in addition to being completely unaware of what the three of us had been planning. As I looked into his eyes I sent my thoughts out to him.

 

“I’m sorry, Charles.”

 

Although the knowledge that we had learned had purposely been withheld from him in order to keep our true hand a complete secret, I now sent a series of thoughts out to my best friend and most trusted ally. As I did, Charles’ expression slowly changed from confusion and shock to one of firm resolution.

 

“Do what you have to…” was the response I got back from the leader of the Legion of Red and Black.

 

I walked over to where Hippolito stood; he appeared confused and a bit dazed. I paused for a few seconds, then looked into his eyes and addressed him.

 

“Pick it up, Hippolito,” I said, motioning toward Nic’s sword that still lay untouched at his feet.

 

“And be cut to ribbons the instant I do,” Hippolito sneered at me.

 

Although I’d caught him off guard, I could hear the arrogance and sarcasm slowly returning to his voice.

 

“No one will cut you to ribbons, Your Imperial Highness, though many might wish to,” I said, emphasizing the word imperial.

 

Four of the twelve houses were Imperial Houses, solely under the direct rule of the Wizard of Icaria and while the Royal Houses also eventually answered to the Wizard, their titular head was Niklas, as King. By emphasizing the word ‘imperial,’ I was reminding Hippolito that he whether he liked it or not, he was still my vassal and answered directly to me.

 

“The instant I pick up that sword, your imperial troops will kill me,” he again retorted.

 

“No Hippolito, as all of the Princes of the Royal and Imperial Houses and their scribes are now my witnesses, I command them all not to touch a hair upon your head or a feather of your wings. What we do now concludes what was begun over twenty five hundred years ago in the Great Hall of Agramon when you first accused me of treason. Now pick it up – this is the opportunity you’ve waited so long to have.”

 

“And what about magic?” Hippolito asked.

 

“I will use no magic or tricks on you, Hippolito,” I said. “I don’t ever want to be accused of using my powers to defeat you, since any victory under those circumstances would be a hollow one.”

 

Hippolito continued to glare at me, but he slowly bent down and put his hands on the sword. As he did, he kept looking around the room to see if anyone was about to attack him. When he finally realized that my word was genuine, he grasped the sword and quickly stood up, facing me.

 

“Kill me and you gain the winged crown, Hippolito. Kill me, and you can take The Staff of Alexander from my cold and lifeless hand and present it to Loran. Kill me and offer my brother the essences of the four orbs that will leave my dead body, and will then be free to nourish him.”

 

“And if I lose?”

 

“You’ll have to accept the fate I decide to confer upon you.”

 

“You filthy little traitor,” Hippolito spat out first looking at Nic, before turning to me. “You both deserved execution for what you did. I can see why you chose the gladiator. You’re both aristocratic trash – nobility in name only. Your pedigrees are weak at best. Both you and he are a curse on our society. I don’t care if you choose to mate with scum; you’re not much better. You, James of Icaria, are a vile traitor and that’s why you deserved to die, and still do! Your plots and intrigues jeopardized our entire way of life. You and this gladiator, along with your followers, have only one goal – to destroy the Icarian society our creators worked so hard to build. I despise you and your kind.”

 

“May I assume you accept my offer?” I said, glaring at him.

 

Instead of answering me with words, Hippolito reached to his throat and opened the clasp that secured his magnificent cape, allowing it to fall to the ground. He lifted the golden chain from his neck and shoulders and threw it to the side of the room. It slid across the floor, making a light jingling sound until it came to rest below the chair where Jonathan sat. Moving quickly, he slipped out of the long heavy robe he was wearing to reveal a short white tunic. Then, without warning or challenge, he charged across the room, his sword raised and brought it down in a ferocious stroke at the top of my head. With lightening speed, I raised the staff and as his sword struck the staff’s heavy silver shaft, a loud clang echoed throughout the library.

 

The fight was on, with Hippolito attacking me relentlessly. Time and again the head of the House of History and Philosophy launched vicious attacks with all his might and skill, and with every attack the sound of metal striking metal rang through the Royal Library as I fought off and turned aside his powerful advances.

 

During the next ten minutes, Hippolito and I fought as I’d never fought before. My hands stung from the vibrations that flowed through my staff every time it blocked his sword and I could feel them beginning to become numb.

 

At first, he was the obvious aggressor. Time after time, the onslaught of his attacks drove me back and kept me on the defensive, but although it may have looked like I was losing the fight, the battle was going exactly as I’d planned it.

 

Hippolito was an excellent swordsman; his speed and skill, matched by his ability to turn and move effortlessly once he was airborne, were very impressive. I knew at the very start of this contest that useless attacks on my part would only sap my strength and leave me more vulnerable to his later assaults. But even with my strategy of care and conservatism, more than once his attacks left me confused and disoriented as I struggled to maintain my balance and defend myself.

 

The fight, which had begun within the circle of chairs with our feet firmly planted on the ground, quickly escalated into an air battle as Hippolito and I took flight and the battle moved from a one dimensional fight to a complex three dimensional battle.

 

While Hippolito was by far the better warrior, with my large and light wings I was the better flyer. I could roll and turn, somersault and duck with great speed and agility. As I parried Prince Hippolito’s blows in the air, the words of Brotus came back to me, “I don’t know if I’m watching a fighter dance or a dancer fight.” More than once as I paused to catch my breath, I could see Nic, Bastian, and Esteban out of the corner of my eye, restraining themselves from jumping into the circle in order to defend me.

 

But for all of his ability, Hippolito’s skill had come from countless hours of practice on the Battlecom, while mine had come not only from the ancient training machine but also a source that I was quickly beginning to appreciate with every thrust and blow Hippolito delivered – Brotus. Time and again, I could hear the words of the old, one-eyed soldier shouting at me as he relentlessly and mercilessly attacked me in our training sessions.

 

“Duck… NOW sparrow.”

 

“NO, to the right little bird.”

 

“You’re tripping over your own feet, boy.”

 

“Now lift your staff… NO… HIGHER!”

 

“Beat it back. Beat it back, harder. Now jab and turn. You have wings, sparrow – USE THEM.”

 

“What’s between your ears Jamie, a brain or a pile of cold mud…? THINK!!!”

 

My sessions with Brotus had been fierce. There were times I almost hated him for his taunting and ridicule, but now as I fought for both my life and my honor, I was finally coming to realize what those long, hard sessions with the lone survivor of the legendary Iron Regiment had done for me.

 

I wasn’t only fighting and reacting… I was fighting and thinking. I was anticipating my opponent’s moves while at the same time developing my own strategy. And as the fight continued, Hippolito’s surprised expression told me that he was beginning to realize that I wasn’t just accepting the rules he was trying to force on me, but creating a strategic matrix of my own.

 

As our duel continued, I could see that Hippolito was becoming just as tired as I was – enough that he was beginning to make small mistakes that could have easily gone unnoticed by an outside observer, but were becoming increasingly obvious to me the longer we fought.

 

“It’s just as important to watch your opponent as it is to fight them.”

 

Once again Brotus words echoed in my head. The old soldier emphasized that a fight wasn’t in the rattle and clash of swords and weapons or flashy and posturing moves, but in the mental aptitude of the combatants and their powers of observation.

 

“A man’s brain is as important as his arm, boy. Mistakes can be small, openings come and go in seconds, and a fighter’s advantage can change in the blink of an eye. It’s your job to look for them, Jamie.”

 

And as we continued to battle back and forth, I began to observe those small mistakes surfacing, along with the openings they brought with them; openings that would materialize for a second or two, and just as quickly disappear. More importantly, I was beginning to understand that Hippolito fought in a rhythm, and a few minutes into the fight I was able to guess when his parry would wander a little out of line, and when his riposte would be slow.

 

And then it happened. If I hadn’t been paying attention to Hippolito on a far different level than just the physical I would have missed it. We’d once again gone from the air to the floor, and I could sense that Hippolito was going to try a different tactic. But for one solitary second, I saw him glance to his right. Why he did it was, and still remains, a mystery to me. Maybe he caught a peripheral movement out of the corner of his eye, maybe he was distracted by an errant thought, maybe he was just tired and was trying to collect his thoughts, but in that single, solitary second, I made my move.

 

Brotus had been correct in his advice, yet again; the staff was indeed my weapon. My small size and shorter reach would have never allowed me to get close enough to a skilled opponent like Hippolito to do any real damage if I’d been wielding a sword. As it was, the balance, weight, and reach of The Staff of Alexander was just right to allow me to take advantage of Hippolito’s split second of distraction to thrust the butt between his lower legs, causing him to trip over it and his own feet.

 

Once the crucial second had come and gone and Hippolito was once again fully alert and on the attack, it was too late. I could see the realization of his predicament cross his face and sink into his brain. At this point he was caught, and he knew it. Trying to avoid the staff he attempted to side step, but not before his right foot got tangled up in the base of the staff’s silver shaft.

 

As he stumbled, I withdrew and quickly moved to his right, trying to get behind him. As I did, the staff slapped hard against his left calf. He tried with all his flagging energy to maintain his balance, but his upper body was headed in one direction while his lower body was moving in the opposite. For one split second, I saw his wings stroke as he tried to extricate himself from the trap and attempt to become airborne, but it was too late. The fall appeared to occur in slow motion, and if it hadn’t been a fight to the death I would have laughed at the expression frozen on his face.

 

As it was, His Imperial Highness Prince Hippolito of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy crashed down on his back, looking up at the ceiling, still conscious, but unable to move. Again another opportunity came to light, and before the young prince could recover, I depressed a small protrusion on the back of one of intertwining snakes and a razor sharp blade snicked out of the end of the base of the staff and hovered inches above Hippolito’s windpipe. His Imperial Highness lay on the floor staring up at me with a look of shock and surprise.

 

“Your sword,” I said quietly, and immediately he threw it out of his hand, causing it to clatter across the floor. “Oh, and yes Hippolito,” I added, fixing a cold stare upon him, “I still dance.”

 

The sword came to rest at Nic’s feet; he picked it up and replaced it in the sheath that nestled between his wings. For a few seconds I remained standing silently above Hippolito with the blade of the knife ready to plunge into his throat. Finally I shouted in a loud voice for Esteban and Bastian to take him. Only after the Commander of the Wizard’s Protectorate and the Captain of the Imperial Legion were holding Hippolito securely by each arm did I withdraw the knife and allow it to retract back into the silver shaft of the staff. It took a few seconds of maneuvering, but Bastian and Esteban got the prince to his feet and Hippolito was once again glaring at me.

 

“So what’s your sentence Jamie? What does the little bastard of Icaria have in store for me? I’ll tell you now that I’m not afraid to die. Just make sure that you have the courage to kill me in front of everyone here and now.”

 

“I’m sure you’d be all in favor of that, my prince,” I said, almost spitting out the word prince as if it were a curse. “The noble Hippolito killed in cold blood by Jamie, the rogue Wizard of Icaria. I expect that your followers would make you a great hero. I can just see the great monument to you towering high above the Square of Ondra. Maybe it would even rival the Tower of Agramon in height and splendor. No, Your Highness, you won’t die today. Although you seem to have the desire to kill your own species Hippolito, I have no stomach to kill fellow Icarians.”

 

With that I stepped back, turned my back on Prince Hippolito and walked out of the circle of chairs. Striding across the room, I moved to the open space of the atrium. Clad only in my thin white undergarment and clutching the staff of Alexander, I motioned for Bastian and Esteban to bring Hippolito to me. Once he was directly before me, I began to speak:

 

“We speak to all within this circle, and to all within the sound of our voice. We are the rightful Wizard of Icaria, and our mate Niklas, its rightful king. What we do now, we do as the head of Icarian society – a society that will be far different than it was before our long sleep. Note our command, and mark it well.

 

“Hippolito of Hypernia,” I said in a loud and clear voice, turning to the glowering angel. “If there is a traitor here, then we are now looking upon him. If anyone has violated the courageous dream of King Alexander, it is you. As the true and rightful Wizard of Icaria, we formally remove you as head of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy. Furthermore we strip from you your title, along with any rights and privileges you hold. Further, the Duchy of Hypernia along with all its attached lands, territories, vassalage, and wealth is removed from your control. You are no longer welcome in this chamber. You no longer have a seat at this council. And as you stand arrogantly before me now, be grateful these are the only things I take from you – for you well know I could demand your life. Now, return the ring.”

 

Hippolito stood flanked and restrained by Bastian and Esteban. At the mention of the word ‘ring,’ he drew up to stand even more rigid before me.

 

“The ring,” I repeated. “Remove it, or I’ll have them cut it off.”

 

Hippolito hesitated for a second, then with his left hand removed the golden band from the ring finger on his right hand. It, like my armband, was in the form of an asp and it matched the rings of the other princes of the Council of Houses.

 

“Throw it down,” I said and watched as Hippolito tossed it at me. Making no attempt to catch it I watched it fall to the floor; it made a small ringing sound has it hit the stone pavement.

 

Walking over to it, I smashed the butt of the Staff of Alexander down hard on it and there was a crunching sound as the gems forming the eyes of the asp were crushed. Then I pointed a finger at it and in a flash it was vaporized. Looking around the assembly, I resumed my speech.

 

“Finally, there remains the issue of whom we shall appoint to fill this empty seat. In answer, we elevate Charles of Eagles Rock, Archangel and first Consul to the Legion of Red and Black, Keeper of the Keys of Hadrian, Historian to the Wizardry, First Scholar of the Royal Institute and High Council to the Wizardry, to the office of Prince of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy along with all titles to the land, holdings and vassals of Hypernia. We also confer upon Prince Charles the office and title of Royal Chancellor of the Academy at Eagles Rock.”

 

“No Jamie, you can’t,” I heard a voice cut through the silence of the library.”

 

Even without turning my head in the direction it had come from, I knew it was Charles who had spoken.

 

“I’m red and black, and we’re prohibited from aspiring to leadership in any of the Royal or Imperial Houses. It’s…”

 

Suddenly he stopped in mid-sentence when he saw the expression I was giving him along with a few thoughts I had projected to him. Without any further protest, he quietly looked to the ground. After a few seconds passed, he raised his head and looked me in the eye.

 

“Yes, Your Grace,” were the only words that came from his mouth.

 

Turning back to Hippolito, I stood staring at the former prince and head of the Imperial House of History and Philosophy and slowly lifted my hand and began to point my index finger at him. Although he tried to remain emotionless I could see him wince as beads of sweat formed on his forehead. My finger stopped directly in front of his face. It was then that I realized his reaction had come from the fact that he must have assumed that I was going to cast a spell or perform some type of magic on him, but that was not my intention.

 

Slowly I removed my finger from Hippolito’s face and pointed to the floor. Suddenly sparks and fire flew from my fingertip as I directed it in a straight line across the marble floor. When I was done, I had created a thin line of blue flames that jumped up four or five inches from the floor. The magical fire that I created burned brightly and yet left no marks or damage to the floor. Hippolito along with everyone in the room had followed my finger as it etched its line of flame across the floor. When I was finished I looked at the former prince and addressed him and everyone else who was within the sound of my voice.

 

“You are, henceforth, neither prince nor even Icarian. Your name is stricken from the rolls of the members of this nation. No loyal Icarian may offer you hearth or hospitality. If you are seen within the boundaries of the lands claimed by Icaria or any of her allies, you may be killed at will by any who see you, without fear of retribution, starting within a week’s time of your departure. Leave this place, and do not come back on pain of death.”

 

Surveying the room I could see that everyone was on their feet soaking in the scene before them – expressions of awe, shock, surprise, fear or amazement were on their faces. Once more I addressed the room.

 

“As you all know, my brother Loran currently controls the Army of Icaria, and all the Thrones that comprise it. He is determined to become the one and true Wizard, and possibly King. We also have a hostile religious sect against us. Therefore, I now ask you to make your decision. Those of you wishing to join my mate, King Niklas, and I, step to this side of the line of fire. Those of you who wish to join Hippolito and my brother, remain where you are.

 

“If you fear exposing yourself, rest assured that anyone who wishes to join Hippolito will not be harmed in any way. You will be given safe passage from Eagles Rock and will not be subjected to any punishment. I give you my word that you will be allowed to leave without fear of reprisal, but once you do leave, you will be on your own. If we meet again, it will not be as friends. I’m sure that you know that Loran and I are in a battle for the Seraphic Throne and the title of Wizard of Icaria. There’s no assurance that King Niklas and I will win this fight, but fight we will until we reign victorious, or die in defeat. The choice is now yours to make. Think well and make your decision, my princes: remain with us, or leave and pursue another course.

 

“It is true that both the king’s and my memories have been compromised and there is much we do not remember, but there are some things that I do remember quite clearly. I now remember the day when I stood up at the Mondele Royale when no one else would stand. I remember what I swore to those in attendance that I would do. I remember my meetings with Niklas in the city of Piropolis and what we promised each other. And I remember the day I took the baton – that day, I will remember until I die. If anyone wishes to dispute those facts, speak now or forever hold your tongues. Now choose this day, this hour, and this second what you will do. But remember what was started and why – do we end it now, do we let the dream of King Alexander die or do we finish what was begin? And I needn’t remind everyone that all of you standing here, who have survived all these long centuries, do so now because of the singular courage of Niklas, King of Icaria, and his forces.” 

 

Without hesitation, Giovanni ran across the line and into my arms. “Lord Protector, I would never leave you,” he said, tightly hugging me with all his might.

 

As I hugged him back I looked up and surveyed the occupants of the room. My gaze was met with total silence. Nic, leaving his spot next to the seat where he’d been standing quietly, strode deliberately across the room. Stepping over the line of flame, he stood next to me as Giovanni continued to embrace me. I felt warm flesh touch me as his hand slipped into mine, firmly grasping it as our fingers interlocked.

 

A few seconds passed, and then Cody and Lance – clasping hands – walked across the room and joined us. As they approached, Cody paused and whispered in my ear. “I have to admit, I truly didn’t think you had it in you, Your Grace,” Cody said, with a tone of respect and reverence in his voice. “But I can see how wrong I was, my liege,” he finished, bowing deeply to me.

 

“I’m glad I proved you wrong,” I said, giving him a wink. “And if you call me that once more I’ll cast a spell on you,” I added, giving a veiled smirk to the newly appointed prince of diplomacy.

 

“Ok Jamie,” he whispered, giving me his own surreptitious smile. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

Charles followed with Jonathan, and Bastian and Esteban released their grip on Hippolito and stepped across the line, ending with a deep bow to me and standing off to one side. Prince Andrew, whom I’d noticed retrieving Hippolito’s discarded cape, crossed the line, approached me, and placed the garment over my shoulders in an attempt to cover my nakedness.

 

One by one, the princes and their scribes silently walked across the room and stood on our side of the burning line. Across from us, on the other side of the line of fire, stood Hippolito, Geoffrey of Batwig, scribe of the Royal house of Defense, and every member of the Legion of Red and Black save Charles. I heard a quiet sigh come from behind me, and as I turned to look in the direction it had come from, I came face to face with Charles, a sad and melancholy expression on his face. I knew that this moment was one of deep pain for him, and great personal embarrassment.

 

“I’m sorry Jamie,” he quietly said. “I would have vouched my life for their loyalty.”

 

“It’s not your fault, Charles,” I whispered.

 

 I turned to my right and looked up into Nic’s face. He squeezed my hand, released it and addressed Esteban and Lancelot.

 

“General Lancelot and Commander Esteban, please escort Hippolito and his companions from the library. See that they’re given proper clothing and blankets, along with enough food and water for two weeks. Allow them to choose a horse and saddle. Collect a company made up of troops from the Imperial Legion and personally escort them from Eagles Rock. Accompany them from the Sirenese Mountains and travel with them through the Ardentin forest. When they reach the open plains, leave them and allow them to head in whatever direction they choose, then return here and give me a full report.”

 

“As you command Highness,” Lance said giving Nic a bow.

 

Nic turned to Cody, “Prince Cody, it is imperative that you inform the members of the alliance of the events that have transpired here. I’m sure General Zakaria and the officers under his command will assist you. In the next few days, it’s urgent that all of the kingdoms and their leader be informed of the current situation.”

 

“As you command, Your Highness,” Cody said, also giving Nic a respectful bow. Then he quickly hurried from the library.

 

As Cody left, Lance and Esteban gathered up Hippolito and his followers and escorted them from the library. After they had left and the doors closed behind them, Nic addressed those who had chosen to stay with us.

 

“I can’t be false with any of you. The days ahead will most certainly be dark and uncertain. Our goal continues to be reaching Küronas. We’ve also formed an alliance with the human kingdoms that make up this world, and we’ll be discussing its meaning and implications with all of you in the next few days. In the meantime, Prince Charles has assured me that all of you have been assigned apartments and living quarters within the Royal Academy. Please go to your quarters and refamiliarize yourselves with the academy. You are all free to use the library and any of other facilities here at the Royal Academy, unless they have been prohibited by order of the King or the Wizard. We will continue our discussions, but for now, if I may speak for His Grace, this session of the Council of Houses is closed.”

 

After nodding my assent to Nic, he continued, “Magisterial Seraphim from the Wizards Imperial Legion will be acting as our guards. They will secure and guard the Academy, along with any private or restricted areas that myself or the Wizard may designate. Please respect those designations. We’ll inform you of further meetings and assemblies. We’ll also keep you as informed as we can of any new information or occurrences that come to light, and we will attempt to answer your questions, but understand that as of today we are, regrettably, in a state of war. Now, I would ask that all of you join Prince Charles, who is more familiar with the Royal Academy than anyone, and allow him to direct you to your living quarters. We will reconvene in approximately eight hours. I would suggest you have something to eat and get some rest.”

 

After Nic concluded, Charles herded the princes and scribes to one of the far corners of the library and began to quietly address them. I could hear them asking questions and quizzing Charles, but the red and black angel remained calm and tried to sort out the royal mess that he had been dealt.

 

As all the activity that been surrounding me like a whirlwind came to a halt, I realized that I was standing alone with only Nic, Bastian, and Giovanni.

 

“Giovanni, thank you for your loyalty. I will not forget it,” I said, prying his arms from me and looking down at him.

 

“My loyalty?” he said, giving me a slightly confused look.

 

“For remaining with His Highness and me,” I said.

 

“But you are the Protector, you are the Lord Regent, and King Niklas…” he paused, and I could see tears come to his eyes. “ You proved that a long time ago, Your Grace. Everyone knows what you and King Niklas have gone through. No one else has shown your courage. Who else stood for us and protected us? I couldn’t imagine not following you, Your Grace. You always credit His Highness for saving everyone, but I know it was you alone who saved me, by your own hand – not once, but twice!”

 

“Well, nevertheless…” I was about to continue, when out of the blue a thought flashed through my mind like a bolt of lightning, and I quickly turned to Bastian.

 

“Captain, I’m so very sorry. Before any of this happened, I was going to meet with you and Esteban.”

 

“Yes, Your Grace, I know,” Bastian responded.

 

“I was going to tell you about our current situation, about Loran and the alliance with the human kingdoms. I was going to give you, Esteban, and your troops the option of joining us, or seeking out my brother and pledging allegiance to him.”

 

“I also know that, Your Grace,” Bastian quietly answered.

 

“Well, now that you are more aware of everything, the choice still stands. You may leave us and join Loran and his army of Thrones.”

 

“Why would we do something so foolish, Your Grace?” Bastian said, giving me a puzzled look.

 

“Captain, there are two wizards – or should I say two candidates for the office – Loran and me. I can’t just assume that you would join His Highness and me.”

 

“Where would we go?” Bastian again asked, still a little puzzled it seemed.

 

“With Loran,” I said

 

“Again, with respect Your Grace, I must ask, why would we do such a thing?”

 

“I don’t know Bastian, I just wanted you to know…”

 

“We know more than you think we know, Your Grace,” Bastian interrupted me; his eyes were intent and serious as he spoke. “We are your army, you are our leader. I see that you do not yet truly comprehend the nature of our bond to you. No disrespect to His Majesty,” as Bastian spoke, he motioned toward Nic, “But we are the Wizards Own. We answer only to you. You are our leader.”

 

“Are you sure?” I said choking slightly, the question sticking in my throat like a bone.

 

Without answering me, Bastian turned to one of the Magisterial Seraphim who had been guarding the door during the council meeting and my fight with Hippolito.

 

“Approach,” Bastian said to the angel.

 

The angel left his post by the door and strode across the room toward us. He was tall, lightly muscular. His large, purple-tipped wings shimmered and there was no denying that he was of the Seraph angel class. He approached, and once he was standing before me, he dropped to one knee, and bowed his head to the ground.

 

“Who is your leader?” Bastian looked down and addressed him.

 

“The Wizard,” the angel answered.

 

“And where is the Wizard?” Bastian asked.

 

The angel raised his head slightly, looking into Bastian’s face. The look he gave his Captain was one of both surprise and puzzlement.

 

“His Grace is the Wizard.”

 

“Are you sure?” Bastian asked.

 

Again the angel gave Bastian a confused look, clearly even more puzzled than the first.

 

“Yes Captain, His Grace is standing here before me.”

 

“What’s your name?” I asked the strong young angel.

 

“Marcus, Your Grace.”

 

“I want you to know that you are free to follow your heart.”

 

Again a look of confusion, even fear, clouded his face.

 

“But we’ve bonded with you, Your Grace. You are the true wizard.”

 

“Marcus, you may stand.”

 

The angel got up from his knee and stood towering over me.

 

“Do you know that my brother has an army of over eighty thousand thrones, ready to kill all of us?”

 

“Yes, Your Grace.”

 

“Do you know that the only defense we have, other than my own inner circle, is the Imperial Legion of which you are a member, and that it’s made up of only one thousand troops?”

 

“Yes, Your Grace.”

 

“How do you feel about that, Marcus?”

 

“I feel sorry for them.”

 

“What?”

 

“I feel sorry for them.”

 

“Why do you feel sorry for them, Marcus?”

 

“Because there are only eighty thousand of them against us. They will need many more than that to defeat us.”

 

My first reaction was to laugh at his almost childish remark, but before I did, I looked into his eyes and could see the depth of his sincerity, his courage and faith. I looked at Bastian, who was giving me a strong and resolute stare.

 

“He’s right you know, Your Grace; I also feel sorry for them. They have been misled. It is my hope that if there are any survivors, they will have learned the error of their way. They don’t have the great leaders that we have. We are yours, to the death. We are your army, now and forever. Your courage, your compassion, your honesty and your strength have bonded us to you, not the ceremony we performed in the chamber.”

 

Then he made a fist and placed it on his chest. “Hail, the Wizard of Icaria!” he said.

 

I looked to see Marcus following the example of his commander.

 

“Very well, Bastian. I wanted to give you the option to go if you wanted.”

 

“Your Grace,” Bastian paused, looking deeply into my eyes. “Where would we go? Our leader is here; our fate is bound to you and King Niklas.”

 

“Captain, assemble the Imperial Legion and inform them of our conversation. Give all of them the same option I have just given you and Marcus. I’ll be addressing them shortly.”

 

“I will Your Grace, but I assure you that not one of us will desert you.”

 

“Please Bastian, just give them the option.”

 

With that Bastian bowed and left the library.

 

I turned to Nic.

 

“Thank you for trusting me, my love,” I said to him.

 

“I admit Jamie, I was ready to intervene during your confrontation. It was hard to stand there and accept the possibility that you might be hurt or killed.”

 

“It had to be done. I know this wasn’t what Charles had hoped for, but in light of what Andrew and I discovered, it was the only way.”

 

“I have to agree, Jamie. It wouldn’t have been prudent to continue our quest with potential enemies or traitors in our midst.”

 

“Well, Nic we’ve not totally rid ourselves of them yet – there is someone I must still deal with.”

 

“The spy?” Nic asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I expected you to say that,” he said.

 

I hugged Nic. He returned my hug with a strong and firm one of his own. I stepped back and looked into his eyes. He bent down and kissed me. When he was done he took my hand and we walked toward the large doors of the library. As we approached them, Marcus and the other Magisterial Seraphim pulled on the handles, opening them for us to pass through, and saluted me. I returned their salute and continued through the door.

 

Finding ourselves in the long corridor that we’d first come down, we began to walk its length until we came to an intersecting corridor and descended a nearby stairway that took us to the lower lever of Abbot Gude’s former chapter house. Even though I’d seen the chapter house before, I still marveled at its grandeur and beauty, but my thoughts were bittersweet: I knew how such wealth had been amassed while much of the human population starved or lived like dogs. Once we were on the ground floor, Nic pointed to a hallway on my left side and we made our way down it. The hallway wasn’t very long, and only dimly lit. We made our way to its opposite end and when we emerged from the shadows, I was staring into the body of the great cathedral. It was then that I realized the passageway we’d taken had been constructed as a quick and convenient access for the Abbot to take when going from the chapter house to the cathedral.

 

Nic didn’t pause for a second in his resolute stride, and still holding my hand, crossed into the cathedral itself. Just like the chapter house, the splendor of the cathedral was most impressive. We quickly made our way to the long center aisle and began to walk down it toward the narthex. Once in the narthex, we approached the same door that Nic and I’d snuck through so many months before in search of the Orb of the Bat. As Nic pushed open the door, brilliant sunlight flooded into the dark, quiet space of the narthex, casting a warm and peaceful glow throughout the large cavernous space. I was temporarily blinded as my eyes squinted in an attempt to adjust to the brightness.

 

Stepping through the door and out onto the landing at the top of the steps of the cathedral, I found myself looking into the open plaza that fronted the cathedral. In the center of the square, the tower, the tallest structure in the complex, reached high into the sky. Beyond it stood the tall, impenetrable stonewalls that secured the space. In the courtyard directly in front of the cathedral stood nine hundred and ninety nine Magisterial Seraphim in perfect formation. As they caught sight of me, they all saluted and dropped to one knee.

 

Looking out at them, I could see their armor, shields, swords, and lances reflecting the brilliant sunlight and causing the very air surrounding me to dance in sparkling reflection. It was then that I noticed a small caravan of horses and riders making their way across the far left end of the square, moving slowly toward the single doorway in the massive wall that led outside to the narrow path that eventually made its way down Mt. Savat.

 

Esteban was leading a group of riders, made up of Hippolito and the other angels who had joined him. A few of General Zakaria’s cavalry soldiers also accompanied them. As the group moved through the square, I watched as Lance brought up the rear. Although I couldn’t resist looking at them as they left, I noticed that not one of the Magisterial Seraphim who were standing in formation in the courtyard spared so much as a glance sideways at the group. As the caravan moved out of sight, I turned back to the Imperial Legion assembled before us.

 

“If anyone wishes to join them, please do so now,” I said.

 

But there was no movement. The Imperial Legion stood firm, all eyes front and center, unmoving and resolute as the rock of the mountain upon which they stood.

 

“Very well,” I said in a loud and clear voice. “The die is cast.”

 

Suddenly I realized that there was some activity behind me. I turned to see General Zakaria and some of his staff, along with Prince Andrew, stepping through the doorway of the cathedral into the sunlight.

 

Once they were all standing beside us, I could see Zakaria giving Niklas a serious and concerned look.

 

“What is it?” Nic asked.

 

“Not good,” Zakaria said. “I’ve been receiving reports of winged creatures throughout the kingdoms. I suspect some of it is hysteria, but with eighty thousand troops under his command, your brother Loran is bound to strike somewhere – and soon,” he added, studying me closely after saying Loran’s name and making me feel somehow responsible for my older brother’s actions.

 

“But that’s not all,” Zakaria continued, casting Nic a grim, stone-faced look. “Something’s happening in Wheems. It seems a large force is beginning to assemble there. I’ve always thought that the church had something up its sleeve. Monks and The Knights of Sarjanus do not an army make. From the reports of our spies, it looks like Wheems has been training a secret army for years.”

 

“What do we do?” I asked casting my gaze between Zakaria and Nic.

 

Nic looked at Zakaria and began: “We leave a small force of Imperial troops here to defend the academy. It’s not a strategic location and it’s too far from any major city or capital. Loran’s already gotten what he needs here; he has no reason to return. We take the princes and scribes back to Konassas. It’s not the perfect place, but it can be defended. Once we’re there, we’ll see if we can learn Loran’s location and move against him.”

 

“If they strike a small city or town, it will be a slaughter,” Andrew said.

 

“You mean ‘when,’” Brotus said. “No one assembles an army like that to parade them through the center of town on a holiday. He’ll make his move, you can be sure of that.”

 

I watched silently as Nic turned to General Zakaria. His expression was dark, and his gaze hard. From his mouth issued two stark words:

 

“Civil war.”