The knights’ eyes opened to a blue, cloudless sky, the sun doing nothing to warm them in the thin air. In every way, the dusty rock could not be further removed from Candaeln–but it was familiar to almost all of them. This empty plateau had been the scene for one unforgettable dream, as had the endless expanse of clouds that ringed it.
Or perhaps it was less of a dream than they had first imagined, now that they were assembled here together.
A polite cough interrupted any attempt to organise or question their scenario, the sound coming from a tiny, almost child-sized woman that had appeared in the air ahead of the group, stood upon nothing. Everything about her appearance had an air of harmlessness, from the bright floral patterns on her foreign robe to the bright cornflower blue of her toenails, except for one point: her eyes. The one icy blue eye not covered by her hair had a depth of weight and age that none of them had encountered before.
“I will keep the explanation brief, and simple enough that all of you should follow,” the woman said, smiling and playing with her hair. She spoke with no fear of interruption–the knights’ words sticking in their throats, choking--and an amused, lilting tone. “A good friend of mine was worried about your skills. For your ages, and experience, she said you were a promising bunch… but if that was all, you’d meet a painful and unfortunate end.
“So she reached out to me, knowing that I’m not allowed to turn down the Roses if they need my talents. Only I could give you the time and place to train in time.” Merilia continued, shaking her head, “But I hardly thought bringing in the entire order would be worth it. Some would fail to thrive, others were more than skilled enough already. I could have asked the vampire for her opinion to narrow down the candidates, but that would mean tipping my hand early. And even I’m not nearly so cruel as to bring her here.
“And that’s where my little test came in! Nothing gives a better assessment than fights to the death and against impossible odds, and I’m pleased to say that you’ve all passed,” her eye flickered over to one that had not been in the test, lingering on the half-demon for just a moment, “Or otherwise have promise.”
She waved her hand, long sleeve giving a dramatic swish, and dropping a random blonde into their midst. Followed by a seemingly identical copy of the same girl. And then a broom, right onto her head.
“One of my little sisters thinks her apprentice could do with some more experience and you could do with more mages, so I’m going to leave babysitting her to all of you. Try not to let her get too hurt before you’ve wrapped up your current problem~”
She clapped her hands. “Now, what is it you have to do for your training? Why, that’s quite simple: escape this place. I’ve placed an exit far to the east, and when you reach it, you’ll go straight back home, none the worse for wear and maaaaaybe only a few minutes after you left. The route is quite challenging, so don’t worry too much about getting killed. You’ll merely appear right back here to give it another go.
“Any questions? No? Excellent! Try not to rely too much on ability to not stay dead, that would be a bad habit to develop, and have fun~”
The witch gave them a jaunty wave, and then the plateau began to drop, giving the knights a brief (and unpleasant) introduction to the inside of a cloud, before they dropped back into open air and could see the landscape spread out around them.
In most directions, it seemed to be unspoiled countryside, yet just to their east could be seen a city of gleaming white, catching the morning light as the clouds chose then to break apart. Hardly a familiar vantage point on a city, but the scale of it suggested that it must have dwarfed Aimlenn, or maybe any city they had ever visited. As they got lower and lower, the towering fortress in the city came into clear view–a beautiful edifice of the same white stone, a castle that seemed as much a work of art as a fortification.
Then even that was removed from site as the plateau dropped yet further, transforming finally into a grassy hill surrounded by forest. To the east, a broad, paved path showed the route the knights were expected to take.
Not that there was anywhere else to go.
Whenever they finally chose to take the path, it snaked pleasantly through a leafy forest, lined on either side by an overabundance of flowers. Now that they were down from the cold sky, the pleasant morning warmth quickly dried them off, and the somewhat long walk to the path’s destination was definitely relaxing. Aside from having been brought here by a witch trying to help.
At the end of the path was something that should not have been wherever this was. Oh, the windows were slightly different, and it stood integrated into a magnificent wall rather than freestanding… but the size, the shape, the familiar moat, and open doors were all Candaeln. Indeed, through the lattice where the moat pierced the wall, a familiar path could be seen running to the courtyard’s side entrance, and from there down into the city that most definitely wasn’t Aimlenn.
The entranceway inside was conspicuously bare, compared to what they knew. None of the displays of old equipment or relics, not a hint of a painting… but the room was the same, and it seemed that some of the interior windows were the same. One seat even had an unsurprising smattering of cushions and pillows, although the expected occupant wasn’t there.
Instead, a man was leaning against one of the central pillars, whistling an out-of-tune song until the knights came in, when his face split into a bright grin. “Well, I was wondering how long it would take for you to get here, the li'l witch told us to expect some visitors.”
He was huge, just taller even than their familiar Ingvarr, and his shirt seemed like it must be uncomfortably tight across his broad chest–tears could even be seen around the short sleeves, unable to restrain the muscles.
That size, the golden beard and mess locks–it was an undeniably familiar appearance, one that all of them would have seen walking through Candaeln. But only in the form of a painting, a record of the distant past.
Cyrus the Hammer was undoubtedly dead.