The story so far:
A thunderous roar followed the bizarre flurry of flying black rodents. Ras could have sworn he heard his name in the shout. His suspicions were confirmed when the door to the dwelling shuddered aside once more and Zane charged out, human disguise cast aside. The Guardian’s wings trembled with sheer power.
The first inkling of fear snaked through Ras’ heart.
He pushed it aside. He was going to rule everything. It would never do for the ruler of all to be cowed by a miserable fairy, Guardian or no.
Though it went against nearly everything in his nature, he straightened and stepped forward.
Zane’s eyes immediately locked on his, burning with rage. When he spoke, the sky itself seemed to echo his words. “You will pay for what you’ve done!”
The Zenith sword rose high, but Ras hadn’t made it where he was by sitting back and waiting for others to act. At a whispered command, the willow staff appeared in his left hand even as he drew his sword with his right. The air shuddered as the two blades collided, the staff providing a counterbalance against the magic in the Guardian’s weapon.
Ras sneered at his opponent over the crossed swords. “Do you recall how long a fairy’s essence can remain distinct in a jewel, Guardian?”
Zane’s eyes flashed, and he shouted as he lunged again.
Ras deflected the blow with some difficulty. He grunted. “I’ll take that as a yes. Just how long has it been, do you suppose?”
“Return her at once!” Zane bellowed, swinging wildly.
The prince’s arms moved automatically as his mind raced. Return… the queen? Did Zane believe he had the diamond?
Another strike, another parry. Zane had run into that house with a purpose. Ras had been about to follow him in to catch that insipid little apprentice girl, but the Guardian had come roaring back out too quickly.
Which meant that whatever Zane had expected to find in that house hadn’t been there.
Another deflect. This time Ras directed energy through the staff, delivering a powerful strike to the Guardian’s unguarded side, though nothing was visible save a tiny spark of static discharge.
The unbridled rage in Zane’s eyes confirmed Ras’ final suspicions. The girl had to be dead. Zane saw her body and assumed Ras had killed her and taken the jewel. It was the only logical conclusion.
But Ras hadn’t taken anything. So where had the diamond gone?
The thought so distracted Ras that he almost didn’t see the blade flying for his torso. He barely leapt back in time to avoid being gutted.
“Freeze!” a human suddenly shouted from nearby. “Police!”
Zane didn’t even glance aside, affording Ras no chance to look, either. No matter. The humans were no match for them. They would not interfere in this battle.
Ras’ sword sliced through the air, knocking Zane’s strike off course and providing yet another opening for the staff.
But Zane was ready for it this time. A burst of magical energy came from the fairy’s very body, diverting the charge back at Ras.
“I said, return her!” Zane demanded.
Ras was still reeling. He’d only experienced that pain before once, and he’d sworn then to never experience it again. A swishing sound met his numbed ears, and he lifted his blade. The vibration of metal striking metal, infused with magic, shook through his entire body.
He growled out a few dark words, swinging his staff this time. Zane once again deflected the magical strike, though this time it stung with a burning pain in Ras’ arm. His hand became limp and unresponsive, dropping the staff.
“By the—” Ras cut his oath short. He didn’t swear by the Guards any longer.
“I said, freeze!” the human shouted again.
Zane took full advantage of the moment, driving home a flurry of blows that sent Ras tumbling to the ground. He raised his sword, but Zane stomped on his arm, pinning it to the ground.
“Give her to me,” Zane growled, the point of his sword hovering inches from Ras’ neck.
It abruptly occurred to Ras that his thumb was rubbing the onyx stone in his sword’s hilt. The familiar comfort of power washed up his arm. A smile quirked his lips, turning into a snicker, then a full-blown laugh, high-pitched and more than slightly mad.
Zane’s eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward. The blade pushed against Ras’ skin. “Give. Her. To. Me.”
There was some sensation of pain at Ras’ neck, but he hardly noticed. He’d already called on the power in the stone, and it flooded through his senses in a delirious tide. “Try and make me—you tasty fool.”
Digby grunted in frustration once more as he and Trine marched through the palace together, checking on each jewel and confirming that they all remained hidden. While he recognized the necessity of the task, he couldn’t help feeling that Loraint should be the one stuck here with Trine. He’d bested Loraint on all the weapon forms. Sure, Loraint might be more likely to blindly follow orders without adding a personal twist on things, but the goblins were a dangerous bunch. Maggie should have chosen the superior fighter for the task.
“This one’s secure,” Trine said before they even stepped into the next room.
Embarrassed that he’d forgotten to do his job, Digby sent out a quick buzz of energy and felt an even stronger buzz respond. “Right, General—I mean, Trine. On to the next one.”
Trine rubbed his jaw as they walked, climbing a long flight of stairs. “You’re not happy.”
“The kingdom I’m sworn to protect is in shambles. Of course I’m not happy.”
“You’re not happy about Maggie’s orders.”
Digby looked away. “I’m not sure how far we can trust Sklaborn. He’ll just take the offer and stab us in the backs.”
“I don’t know how much choice we have in the matter.” Trine sighed. “Never thought I’d see the day when our last hope lay in the goblins.”
Digby shook his head in agreement as he opened the door to the queen’s chambers.
Layla awoke with a start when the truck lurched to a stop with a series of hissing sounds. The driver moved several levers around, then climbed out of the vehicle and walked away, taking an inordinately long time to scratch his hindquarters as he did so.
Chelise joined her in peering out the window. “If we get much farther away from Austin, we won’t be able to return home. This is one of the designated nodes.”
“Right,” Layla whispered, not entirely sure what Chelise was talking about but feeling perfectly happy to take her word for it.
The willowy Guardian slipped into the front and cautiously opened the door. When no voices rang out, no figures large or small rushed at her, she dropped noiselessly to the ground. “Come. Quickly.”
Layla could still feel her body trembling as she obeyed. She’d been too worried about the human spotting them to really relax, falling asleep only from sheer exhaustion. The flight in the human world had been terrifying, to say the least, between the electric hum bombarding her from every side, the strange elements in the atmosphere rattling her wings, and, of course, the pursuing black mass, growing ever larger, ever closer behind her…
It took her a minute after seeing the flash of light to realize that a Guardian was with her. Chelise had slowed the creatures with a shield, then pulled her into the strange vehicle. The bats had then flown on, not realizing which direction their prey had vanished.
Chelise caught her arm and stopped her at the back edge of the truck, peering around the towering wall of metal before hurrying on. They crossed the pavement quickly, passing many more trucks before their feet hit grass, overgrown weeds smacking into their legs as they ran.
Chelise didn’t let them slow until they reached the cover of several tall but sickly trees. “Catch your breath, then return to the palace,” she ordered, panting. “The trees will help you guide your energy.”
“The goblins?” Layla asked between breaths.
“Staved off for now. And there are still six Guardians in the palace. Give the queen to General Trine.”
Layla nodded, closing her eyes as she panted. A shudder ran through her body. The blackness behind her eyelids was too much like the mass of bats that had pursued her. It was almost as if she could still see them, still hear them…
“FLY!” Chelise screamed.
Layla’s eyes shot open. The twinkling stars above had been blotted out, replaced by beady pairs of red eyes. Thousands of them.
She leapt into the air, her wings unfurling as her human disguise was once more discarded. But as she reached the height of the trees, the blackness surrounded her, ensnaring like a net. She cried out as sharp teeth pierced her wings. Pain shocked her senses, and she fell.
A hearty tree branch painfully broke her fall, and the bats covered her, their claws digging and teeth ripping cloth, flesh, wing, or whatever they could reach. Chelise cried out to her, but the Guardian’s voice was distant and faint.
There was a mighty snap and crack. The branch beneath her shuddered. The biting lessened.
Another crack. The bats began disappearing.
Numb and shaken, Layla pulled herself more firmly onto the branch and began scooting along it toward the trunk. With one hand she swatted at the attacking creatures, but her arm was weak and sluggish to respond. She clung to the trunk and cried, struggling to swipe at the bats and failing miserably.
A high-pitched screech echoed through the air, and she looked up as a bat flew straight at her face, its mouth open and ready to destroy.
A leafy branch swung down out of nowhere, smashing into the beast and sending it tumbling to the ground below.
Layla gasped as the branch beneath her shuddered once more. Her wondering eyes turned to the trunk as the bark shifted, roiling until it formed a sort of impish face.
“Must be someone of importance for the goblins to get so riled,” a voice spoke, whispering one moment and then reverberating through the core of the tree itself.
Layla’s breath caught. She hadn’t landed in a tree.
This was a nymph.
“You—” she started, but a child-like giggle cut her off.
“Hold there,” the ever-shifting voice said. The branch under Layla suddenly swung completely around the trunk, coming to a stop on the other side. A mass of bats that had been zooming in from each side wound up slamming into each other.
The giggle came again, making the leaves rustle. Or was it the other way around?
“But the Great War,” Layla blurted, too pain-dumb to monitor her words. “I thought nymphs were our enemies.”
Another giggle. This one sounded as if it came from right beside her ear.
“Not all of us are, darlin’.”
Digby and Trine froze in the doorway, staring at the strange figure in the queen’s bedchamber. The small, cloaked goblin’s eyes were closed, one hand extended as though holding a sword, swinging through an impressive display of martial skill, only without weapon or opponent. The other hand moved at bizarrely opposing angles, gesturing as though conducting, directing some sort of aerial attack.
Digby recognized him at once, and more than that, he recognized the small jewel the goblin clutched in his hand. With a primal shout, Digby tore his Zenith free from its sheath.