The days following the success within the Vinrul stronghold were a blur.
The Udirians at Amber Ridge forced me to stay bedridden while Lady Evanor and I were treated for severe malnourishment. We funneled a fair bit of our energy into our work, and we were thankful for the posh treatment. I also, unfortunately, had to take a daily assortment of potions to get back on my feet, many of which smelled terrible and tasted worse.
I don’t recall what became of Kekel. The Udirians rewarded him greatly, so I’m sure he never had to work a day in his life again. The worst part was our work seemed so hollow. The Udirian report showed that the Vinrul would likely continue to attempt their plan. They would always try to bring the Yunai here, no matter what. Our only true resolution to this would be if the Yunai themselves stopped coming here. That was seemingly something we could never manage.
Still, I relished in the brief window of relaxation.
Of course, my heart still ached for Appoleon.
After four days of recovery, I decided I was ready to make my move. I had nearly died for this opportunity, and I couldn’t risk losing my window. I got dressed, ate breakfast, and headed down to talk to Evanor and Donathan.
“Good to see you awake,” Evanor said, smiling at me.
“You too,” I replied. “Have either of you seen Appoleon around?”
“He left,” Donathan said in a casual tone. “His group was able to move the prisoners back without his assistance, and he felt it was best he be back to his job at the Stonehaven outpost. Obviously we didn’t want to keep him from his… culinary duties.”
“Of course not,” I said. “I suppose that’s fair.”
“We’ve given a fair amount of gold to the other members of the party,” Donathan added. “I can have the banks in Stonehaven informed of your payment if you wish. I doubt you want to carry it around the Frozen Realm with you.”
“I’m not actually looking for money,” I said. “I already have a good amount of that.”
“Oh?” the man asked. “What is it you ask?”
“Yes,” Evanor added. “What does Sionis Sepher want?”
“Transportation to Udiria, and access to the Academy facilities in the city.”
Donathan chuckled, then paused, looking at Sionis with realization. “You’re serious?”
“Well, it’s a bit unorthodox, but I suppose it’s not an unreasonable request. May I dare ask why you’re seeking this access?”
“You know I grew up there,” I said, thinking of my youth. “I haven’t seen Udiria since the Third Invasion. I’d like a chance to see home again.”
“No,” Evanor said flatly. “I’m sorry, but that’s not possible right now.”
I was shocked. “Excuse me?”
“The city keeps tight control over who enters and leaves. We can’t just grant you access because you helped us on a mission. Surely you understand that?”
“I’m not just some person,” I snapped. “I was in the Academy for Magic Users. You have no reason not to trust me, especially after what just happened.”
“What are you here for, Sionis?” she pressed. “Tell me the truth.”
“I’m here to help people like you,” I said. “Going to see Udiria isn’t an insane request, Evanor, I don’t know why you’re acting like this.”
“Because I know you’re defending your mind from me right now. You’ve got a spell in place, something that’s hiding your true intentions. I’ve seen it before a hundred times. Your dishonesty shines like a candle in the night.”
“The dishonesty you’re sensing has nothing to do with Amber Ridge or the Udirians,” I assured her. “I have secrets, yes, but maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to hide them behind a protective spell if I didn’t have you reading my thoughts!”
Lady Evanor scoffed. “Do you want the money or not?”
“So that’s it then?” I asked, feeling incredulous and forgetting all about my plot. “I just closed your stupid rift. I almost died for you. Now you’re just gonna cram some gold in my pocket and tell me to buzz off? You’re being ridiculous.”
“Take it or leave it,” she said.
“Fine,” I said, loudly. “Leave it.”
The bustling stronghold of Vengeance Keep was just as chaotic as it was the last time I had been here. The massive outpost served as the main landing point for all airships coming and leaving the Frozen Realm, and it was considered the gathering point for the unified armies of the various Kingdoms, including the Besherman, the Stonehaven Guard, the reformed Lederan Army, and whatever else managed to send troops along. I ignored most of the new arrivals that passed by, thinking instead on my last moments at Amber Ridge, riding off as Evanor called for me from the tower.
The anger had turned to frustration, and then it had given way to my realization that I had probably just slammed the door on a chance to get to Udiria for now. I don’t know if I could have convinced Evanor to change her stance, but the exit I made meant there was no reason to ask her again.
The Brightest Star, one of the biggest airships to ever fly out of Stonehaven, was currently moored at the Keep, having arrived that very morning. It was filled with busy deckhands rushing back and forth from the harbor. I followed a hunch and headed down to the dock so that I could ask some people if they’d seen a man built like Appoleon. Sure enough, a few minutes of good questioning put him in the belly of the airship, helping to load food and supplies for the trip back to Stonehaven.
I headed down into the vessel and when I arrived at the storage area, I saw Appoleon stand up in surprise. “Sionis,” he said as he nervously approached. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to apologize.”
“Apologize?” the man asked. “For what?”
“For making you go to on that damned mission… I truly wanted you to come for your healing power, not to fight, but I should have known that the possibility was there.”
“Sionis, save your breath.”
“Look, I have no regrets. I could have turned you down, but I didn’t. I can’t blame you for what happened in that place unless I’m willing to blame myself too. Besides, killing that beast was confirmation that I made the right call when I left the military. Now that I’ve learned that lesson, it’s time for me to head home. There’s plenty of work a skilled blacksmith and cook can do away from the frontlines.”
“Do you know where you’ll go?”
“Darthmonte,” he replied without hesitation. “I always liked it there.”
I laughed. “Ah, Darthmonte. You bought your first horse there. It’s close to our old homes, too.”
Appoleon chuckled too. “It’s a great town. There’s room for a skilled magic user there too.”
“Maybe when the time is right,” I said.
His face changed, and he shifted his stance. “Listen, Sionis, I don’t know what’s brought you up here, but I have a pretty good feeling it has to do with Marjan. I know you’re still hurting. Everyone can see it, if they know you. Don’t lose yourself up here.”
“I won’t,” I assured him. “I’m not here to lose anything. I’m here to gain something. I won’t die in the Frozen Realm. I just have to see this through. When I do, I’m going to get on my horse and come all the way to Darthmonte, okay? We’ll have a drink together and laugh about all this mess. I promise.”
Appoleon nodded, but he didn’t look convinced. “You do that, Sionis. I’ll be there.”
“I will,” I said, hoping I wasn’t giving him another lie. “When this is over, I will.”