“Your Grace!” cried an urgent voice from out of nowhere. The duke turned toward the open window to see the tall, vaporous form of Thom Illwind, one of the duke’s key henchmen, blow in from the windstorm that still battered the manor. “The scouts you ordered to fall back and guard our rear, have returned with word that the trackers following us are nigh, and on the road leading to this manor. Worse yet, the trackers encountered on the same road a squad of Ethereal Legionnaires led by King Cirrus himself. They’ve joined forces and stopped to brief each other for the nonce, but I reckon they’ll soon be hot on our heels. And they’ll have us too, Your Grace, if we tarry here. What would you have us do?”

Duke Northstorm scowled and thought aloud, “The Sky King and the Ethereal Legion are coming here already? How could they know to—? Ha!” The duke laughed sarcastically, as the answer to his own question came to mind straight away: “Of course, the cursed Land King’s Master of Enlightenment, Kevin Galwynn.”

Duke Northstorm wearily sheathed his lightning-sword and slumped onto the small sofa in the parlor. He rubbed his eyes and an uneasy feeling settled in his heavyset belly. “If they know of this place, and Lord Lewis, and me,” he continued musing aloud, “then they know more than enough. Feigning my usual foolishness or being a dupe will come to naught this time. “So, the choice is obvious.”

“Begging your pardon, Your Grace?” said Thom Illwind.

“I said,” replied the duke, “tell the troops to prepare for bloody battle.”

“Your Grace?” Thom protested, despite a likely reprimand. “There is still time to flee!”

Northstorm chuckled softly and explained like a parent edifying a naïve child, “Don’t you see, Thom? It is already too late to run. They know what we’ve done. They know where we are. And if they aren’t already fully aware, they’ll soon know exactly who we are.” Those who feel guilty often overestimate the all-knowingness of their accuser; but in this case, Northstorm was not far from the truth. And that realization made his blood run cold. “Knowing all that, then no matter where we flee, they will simply hunt us down.”

But retribution was not inevitable, thought Northstorm. He could still oppose his pursuers. He could still fight back. After all, his full title was, “His Grace Major-General Northstorm, Most Excellent Commander of the Seventh Reserve Legion.” What better time to put his boastful bluster to the test?

“Our retinue outnumbers a small squad of Legionnaires,” said the duke. “Tell our men to take cover in the high sky and prepare for combat. Be off with you, Thom! I will join you shortly.”

Thom Illwind strode towards the parlor window, gaining altitude above the fog-shrouded floor with each step as if he were climbing an invisible staircase. He became more indistinct as he stepped away, and vanished entirely before he reached the open portal.

“It’s quite ironic, really,” said the weary duke to the haggard man behind the weirding wall. “I had hoped that by helping you pursue your outlandish dream, I could visit some small misfortune upon you Landfolk. I had no idea you would succeed so spectacularly. Now my schemes have been brought to naught by a Master of Enlightenment—and a madman.”

The glint of light in Lord Lewis’s eye flickered, and then faded away.

“Your friendship was a…lie?” said Charles, not wanting to believe his ears. Suddenly, his heart felt as heavy as a stone. “Clearly so, I suppose,” he said, stoically bearing the rejection he so often endured when trying to make new friends. “But if you hate me so, why did you encourage my efforts?” 

Charles’s words were so cogent, and his manner so deliberate, that Northstorm was shocked by the change. “Huzzah! The sane scholar has returned,” said Northstorm, cheekily. “You know, Charles, your mood swings are beginning to make my head spin.” 

Knowing that the die was cast, Northstorm could see no reason to hide his true feelings from Charles with cunning or subterfuge. He felt relieved. He and Charles had been co-conspirators for a while now, and had confided in each other socially for much longer. Who better to understand their roles in the ending of the world?

“Hate you? No, Charles, in fact I rather like you. I don’t hate who you are, I hate what you are: You are Landfolk.

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