The minutes after Isolde’s return to Dawnshire passed in a blur of panic and confusion. Injured men staggered through the portal she had opened, and collapsed in the dirt outside the Order’s barracks. She and her mercenaries were largely unharmed after fighting their way through the Labyrinth’s Snare. A small miracle, thought Isolde, as she checked with each of her comrades before sending them back to their lodgings to rest and recuperate. Isolde herself stayed behind, trying to calm the raging Sir Hagan. He had carried the Elf Princess’s lifeless body through the portal himself and laid her on the ground, kneeling over her as if she might yet wake up from her sleep. In the sunlight, even in death, she was beautiful. Sir Hagen’s tears splashed Lera’s cheeks and he dipped his head to kiss her cold, pale lips. Then, as fast as a change of the wind, his tears had dried up, to be replaced by a wild fury that shocked Isolde to her core. He leapt to his feet and began checking over his armour and weapons, as if he was preparing to go straight back into battle. Isolde ran to his side and took his elbow. He turned to stare at her, but when she looked back into the knight’s blue eyes, the Hagan she knew was gone, replaced by something new. Something darker. He has gone mad with grief, Isolde thought to herself as she struggled to find any words that might placate him.
“Hagan,” she tried, desperately, “I know your pain is great, but you are needed. Now more than ever!”
“Ha!” snapped Sir Hagen, “What do you know? A strip of a girl not yet twenty! Have you loved? And have you seen the one you loved put to death to further her own father’s vile cause? I’ll wager of the two of us, I alone can answer yes. Leave me be, child. I have business to attend to with Hakan.”
“The Elder Elf’s treachery has been discovered,” said Isolde, trying to reason with him, “By now, those loyal to Hakan will have spirited him away to some secret refuge. Where would you even start?”
“I’ll start with the first elf I see,” growled Sir Hagan, “And work my way through the whole stinking pack if I have to.”
“Listen to yourself!” Isolde gasped, “Wasn’t your own love, Lera, an elf? There are many elves in Midgard who seek permanent peace with mankind. You know that, Sir Hagan.”
“Aye, Lera thought our races could find harmony, and look where it got her! Betrayed by her own kin. Her noble blood spilled for evil ends!”
Sir Hagan shook himself out of Isolde’s grip and, stealing a final glance at Lera where she lay, he lifted his arm and opened a new portal.
“But where will you go?” cried Isolde over the rushing sound from the fizzing blue void.
Sir Hagen stared at her from the threshold of his portal. For a moment, his face softened and there was - just for a second - kindness in his eyes again.
“Good luck, Isolde Hart,” said Sir Hagan, “May Gelderrin prove a better guide to you than he has to me.”
“Hagan!” Isolde shouted, but it was no use. The knight stepped into the swirling void and was gone.
Suddenly, Isolde felt utterly exhausted. She longed to wash the spattered blood of men and demons from her hair and fall into her bed to sleep. She left the fallen princess in the care of the Order’s pious chaplain, who promised to watch over her body while an elven priest was found to perform her funeral rites. Then she trudged homewards, towards the Healer’s House.
She had not gone far when a hooded figure - small and slight - stepped from a shadowy doorway to accost her. The stranger pulled back her hood, revealing herself to be a young elf maiden. At least, Isolde thought she looked young; perhaps somewhere around her own age. Elves lived so much longer than humans that thirty years, or fifty even might not leave so much as a crease in their unblemished skin. Her dress was fine and well made, but less ornate than Lera’s noble garment and more practical, with a large pocket in her apron skirt. A servant, perhaps, thought Isolde.
“My lady, Isolde,” said the elf, bowing slightly, “I am Lenora. I was handmaiden to the princess Lera, until…” her voice trailed away into nothing. Isolde noticed the tracks of tears on her face.
“I am sorry,” she answered, “Your mistress did not deserve her fate.”
“No,” said the elf maiden, steadying her emotions as she continued, “Nor do my people deserve to be lied to and manipulated by her treacherous father. That is why I have sought you out.”
“Me?” asked Isolde, “I would help you if I could, but my duty lies elsewhere. I am sworn to defend Midgard against the Dark Lord. That battle has not yet been won.”
“And do you think it will be if you stand alone? There is power in my people; ancient and terrible. Hakan seeks to ally that power with the Dark Lord’s forces. He believes he will be rewarded with a kingdom of his own. But Hakan is a fool. The Dark Lord will never share his dominion. Hakan will be a slave, and all the elves will be dragged down with him.”
“I feel for your people,” Isolde protested, “But I am only one of the many chosen warriors who carry Gelderrin’s ring.”
“My lady,” the handmaiden continued, earnestly, “I have been privy to many secrets in recent months. I have had the confidence of my mistress as well as Sir Hagan, so I know how the war goes. I also know that Sir Hagan sees great promise in you.”
“Sir Hagan has been kind to me but-”
“Do you not know the power you wield, even now?” said the elf, “Sir Hagan believes you are more than one among many, Isolde Hart. He thinks you are the one. The one who can save us all!”
Isolde sighed heavily. Even after everything that had unfolded, Sir Hagan’s faith in her still felt like a profound honour. If only she understood the reason for his confidence in her.
“Sir Hagan has left Dawnshire in search of Hakan, Lenora. He will have his revenge. Leave it to him, not me,” she said.
“You misunderstand,” the elf replied, “I did not come here looking for your help.”
“Then what?” asked Isolde, puzzled.
“I came to offer ours,” said Lenora, “Hakan fancies himself a King, but there are many among my people who seek another course. My own brother, for example. He leads the Elf Resistance to Hakan’s rule. He seeks peace with all men and an alliance against the Dark Lord.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Isolde, “But I still don’t see what it has to do with me. Take your offer to Luxis. The Angeli will be delighted to accept your support, no doubt.”
“Aye, well… I said I came to offer our help, but there is something we need, too. Something Sir Hagan thought you might be perfect for. Have you heard of The Signet of Nature?”
Isolde shook her head.
“It was once the binding force for all the elves’ power. A mystical artefact that held the kingdoms of the elves together in peace for centuries, bring good fortune to generations. It was shattered by the Dark Lord in the last great war. Its desecration ended a golden age for my people. But the Signet of Nature was never fully destroyed, only broken. My brother’s followers plan to reassemble our greatest magical treasure. In the wrong hands, it could lay waste to the world. But in ours, it might hasten the end of this war. Just as Hakan sought to raise Nidhog with my mistress’s blood, the Resistance believes the kinder magic of the Signet could bring balance back to Midgard.”
Isolde let the history lesson sink in for a minute. Another ancient secret. Another mystical weapon. The Dark Lord seemed prepared for every turn. What hope had this venture of denting his ambition?
“Even if this Signet of Nature is real,” she began, but Lenora interrupted again.
“The Resistance already have two fragments of the Signet in their possession,” she declared, “Their scholars have a good idea where more can be found. But that’s where you come in.”
Isolde shook her head, puzzled.
“There are three fragments still missing, with no clue as to their whereabouts. Before my mistress was kidnapped, I heard Sir Hagan talking with her about your ability to channel Gelderrin’s magic. He said it was unmatched among the chosen. We want you to turn your powers to the hunt for the Signet. Once it is reassembled, the power my people will draw from it will be turned on the Dark Lord, in service of all of Midgard’s people, elves and men.”
Isolde thought about the skills she had learned with Cullers, and the way she had been able to feel the presence of the stones on the Burning Moor. But weren’t the stones cut from the same crystal as her own ring of power? She had no idea whether she could turn her gift to a different target. But she did know this; this elf, with her tear-streaked face and pleading tone, was sincere. And was it not a part of Isolde’s duty to bring together all the people of Midgard in the face of their common foe? She could not turn her back on an alliance with the elves. Especially if the potential of the Signet was really so great. In that moment, Isolde resolved to help.
“Set up a meeting with your brother,” she told the handmaiden, “I will seek the advice of the Angeli. If they approve of your plan, and if I have the power to do so, I’ll find your fragments.”
The handmaiden bowed deeply. When she straightened up, a warm smile curled the corners of her pretty mouth.
“Thank you, chosen one. I will send word to my brother at once.”
“Mind that you tell no one else, for now,” said Isolde, “You have my trust, Lenora, but I will not be drawn into another power struggle. The politics of men are enough already. If I find your motives are not-”
“My motives are pure, my lady, I swear it.”
“Then we will speak again,” said Isolde, and she turned and left Lenora standing in the doorway.
When she reached her room in the Healer’s House, Isolde threw herself onto the bed and was asleep before her head hit the straw-stuffed mattress. She slept in the clothes she had worn in battle, and woke up the following morning with her breeches stiff with dried blood and her hair stuck to her face. She called for hot water and scrubbed herself from top to bottom before dressing in clean clothes and checking her appearance carefully in the long mirror in her room. Isolde was a woodland villager at heart, and the pomp and finery of Luxis still made her feel rather insignificant and unworldly, even with Gelderrin’s ring on her finger. Still, she thought, at least travelling by portal allowed her to make an entrance that confirmed she had legitimate business. If she had to arrive on foot, she mused, looking over her leather clothes critically, she might be mistaken for a travelling merchant or a minstrel.
“I suppose I could get myself a suit of armour or a uniform from the Order, if I really wanted one,” she said absentmindedly as she stared at her reflection, “Or the Brotherhood, for that matter…” Isolde wrinkled her nose. “Nah,” she added as she turned to leave, “Not my style.”
The broad halls and marble floors of Luxis were a far cry from the humble fittings of her little room, moments later, that was where Isolde found herself, slipping among the courtiers as she made her way to where the Angeli Seer, Beltheron, was talking with a circle of concerned looking advisors. The Seer’s calm expression and unflappable demeanour could not mask the worry in the room. Isolde knew trouble when she saw it. She held back as she approached the group, waiting for Beltheron’s conference to end. As he dismissed his advisors, he spotted her and beckoned her over to him.
“Isolde Hart,” he said, greeting her with a warm smile that faded quickly into stern resolve, “You are well named, young warrior. For I always find you at the heart of things.”
“What can I say?” said Isolde, “I have a knack for knowing where the action is.”
“What brings you to me on this day, Isolde?” asked Beltheron.
“The elven resistance leaders have reached out to me,” Isolde explained. She told Beltheron about Lenora’s approach and the Signet of Nature and he listened patiently.
“And your instinct is to trust her?” Beltheron asked when she had finished.
“Yes, I trust her.”
“Hmm…” said Beltheron, “I know her brother. The Elf Resistance are true at heart. Your instincts serve you well, Isolde.”
“Then you agree that I should help them? Will my powers allow me to find their Signet?”
“Yes, yes,” said Beltheron with a wave of his hand, “That is just a matter of focus, Isolde. You need only turn your mind to the Signet and the ring will point the way. When you find a fragment, you will surely know it. But, I’m afraid, this worthy alliance with the resistance must wait a while.”
“How so?” asked Isolde.
“Your arrival was fortuitous,” said Beltheron, “For I would have summoned you soon enough. I was brought news this morning of our friend Sir Hagan. You were with him yesterday, I understand.”
Isolde’s heart thumped in her chest. Sir Hagan had left in such a troubled state, she could not help but worry for his safety.
“Is he alright?” She asked, eagerly.
“Far from it, I fear,” said the Seer, shaking his head, “He has been seen in Stygia, but the reports that reach me say he is not well at all. He has… changed.”
“Aye,” said Isolde, sadly, “I fear Sir Hagan has been driven mad with grief.”
“Grief may be the least of his problems,” said Beltheron, gravely, “If Sir Hagan takes on the dungeons of Stygia alone, he is doomed. It is a place of dark magic, Isolde. If he stays there too long, not even Sir Hagan will be able to resist its pull.”
“Then the Signet can wait,” said Isolde.
Isolde parted company with Beltheron and jumped by portal back to Dawnshire, where her mercenaries were up and filling their bellies with food laid on in the kitchen of the Healer’s House.
“There you are,” said Park, as Isolde arrived home, “We’ve been up for ages. Too tired to go drinking last night, so no hangovers.” He winked and bit into a chicken drumstick.
“For goodness sake, Park!” said Roline, “Use your eyes! Can’t you see something’s up? What’s wrong, Isolde?”
“It’s Hagan,” said Isolde, “He’s in trouble.”
“Well then, what are we waiting for?” Said Park, lobbing the bone from his chicken into the fireplace as he rose to his feet.
“I remember when we used to complain about not having enough to do,” said Carason, drily, “Personally, I was rather hoping for a day off.”
“Rest is for the dead,” said Shcer, “Lead the way, Isolde.”
With no idea of Sir Hagan’s precise location, all they could do was hunt for him. Isolde transported her team from Dawnshire’s reassuringly narrow streets to the forbidding realm of Stygia, and they jumped from dungeon to dungeon until everyone was positively sick of portals. For a long time, they found nothing but empty caverns and old bones. There was no sign of Sir Hagan and nothing to point to where he might be. Even Isolde was beginning to lose heart. They saw no sign of Stygia’s hostile inhabitants, either. Not at first. It was only after their fourth or fifth portal leap, as they delved ever deeper into the dungeon realm, that the trouble started.
“I swear to the Gods,” said Park, bending over and breathing hard as he recovered from their latest journey, “If we were meant to travel that way, we’d all be given those bloody rings!”
“Oh stop moaning,” said Roline, “Let’s search this place and move on.”
“What’s the point?” Park grumbled, “There’s nothing here. This place is a wasteland. No one to fight at all!”
“Shh!” said Isolde.
“I’m just saying, we-”
Out of the silence came a now familiar sound; the shifting of stone and the crunching of dry bone, as the rank after rank of bone soldiers began to rise up through the rocky ground like spectres.
“How many times do I have to tell you, brother,” said Roline, loading her crossbows and bring them to bear on the emerging enemies, “Be careful what you wish for.”
“Me and my big mouth,” said Park, whirling his sword from hand to hand to warm up, “Let’s do this!”
They were massively outnumbered. A lesser team would have been overwhelmed almost immediately, or forced into a retreat. But Isolde’s mercenaries were no ordinary dungeon raiders; they were battle hardened and expert in their inpidual disciplines. And with Isolde leading the charge, they had become quite fearless. They had seen what this young girl could do. They knew it perhaps better than her, for a strange sort of trance came over Isolde in the heat of battle these days, so that she seemed serenely detached from the mayhem all around her, as she dodged and leapt and fired her arrows. And what arrows they were! The light wooden shafts that she strung to her bow were transformed by the power of the chosen into an array deadly, magical projectiles. They swelled to enormous size and crashed like cannonfire through her targets, or split into a multitude and rained down upon the enemy like a hailstorm. The bones soldiers barely had time to raise their weapons before they were cut down by Isolde and her comrades.
“Keep going,” Isolde called, beckoning to the next cavern as the last of the soldiers crumbled in a blast from Carason’s staff.
“Now that’s more like it,” said Park, gazing upwards at the gigantic armoured figure that loomed above them, “Some actual competition.”
From the titan’s eyes, a beam of hot light fired out across the room, scorching the stones.
“Keep your distance!” Isolde shouted, “Roline! Circle him. With me! Shcer, Park, see if you can get in close!”
Isolde and Roline danced around the giant, dodging his fiery gaze and firing their arrows and bolts into the gaps between his golden armor. He roared and lashed out at them as they ran around him, staying out of range. Keeping his attention on them. Soon, the titan began to slow and the guardian, Shcer, seized his chance. He charged forward, swinging his broadsword in a wide arc, and sliced through the giant’s ankle. The giant roared and fell sideways. Park leapt onto him as he fell and ran up his body like a squirrel on a falling tree, before plunging his blade deep into the fallen giant’s skull. His fiery eyes grew dull and his body slumped.
“Give me a hand, Shcer,” said Park, tugging at the hilt of his sword, “My sword’s stuck in his head. Wait!”
“What is it?” asked Isolde, shouldering her weapon as she approached the giant’s body and slapping Roline on the back as she passed her, “Nice shooting, by the way.”
“There’s pouch around his neck,” said Park, “Might be something interesting in it.”
Reached behind the giant’s breastplate and pulled out a leather pouch on a thick thong.
“Well?” asked Isolde.
“A letter,” said Park, holding up a scroll of parchment, “It’s in code, but I except for one name I can read. Sir Hagan! And there’s something else. Some sort of … I don’t know …”
Isolde’s heart jumped when she saw what Park was holding. It wasn’t that she recognized the stone fragment at all. She’d never seen it or anything like it in her life. But she knew at once what it was, because every fibre of her being told her so… the ring was telling her. By some strange coincidence, she had stumbled upon a fragment of the Signet of Nature.