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It turned out they needed almost all the power-stones to finish the wall. Time may stand still for no man, but it could slow down to a crawl if Taggart wanted it to. He put as much energy into the spell as possible to slow things down, or speed things up, depending on which side of the bubble you were on.

From the outside, people assigned to keep an eye on the castle were amazed to see the walls seemingly rebuild themselves before it got too dark to see. Then it seemed the castle was surrounded by giant fireflies, the torches of people working faster than the eye could see.

Near Dassenti's camp, the wizards of Lurk viewed this with detached interest. "That fool Taggart is going to burn himself out at this rate," commented one.

"Let him, it will make it easier to deal with him later."

Vego was anything but indifferent, "We should stop him. Shatter the spell, there is no reason to let this go unchallenged!"

"Why?" said the first wizard, who was also checking to see if his cloak was properly groomed and flashy, "He's only building the walls back up."

"But it will take more men's lives if they put up any resistance."

"Dassenti's men and lives, not ours. Once they break through, Taggart will be weak as a kitten and our job will be much easier."

Vego's eyes narrowed. He sensed the sour taste of political maneuvering in the wind. He hated petty politics, trying to gain some small advantage in every situation. It always got in the way of common sense, and the big picture.

And power.

Inside the bubble, the sun seemed to hang in the air, refusing the actually set. It took days before it actually dipped below the horizon, but the work continued through the endless night.

Oool's powerful potions were key to the castle's reconstruction. Some gave men and women the strength to lift large pieces of rubble, and others cemented them into place. It was important not to mix these two up.

Taggart took the time to train Perah-Perah and Asyra some new spells, while Soo taught the peasants the basics of how to use a sword or pole arm. Sephilith trained others in the basics of the crossbow and bow. Rosileen and Dogford's chief cleric traded healing techniques and recipes. Meanwhile, Victoria spent most of her time catching up and recording recent events, and trying out some rough drafts of ballads.

The town's smithy worked endlessly forging bolt and arrow heads, and blades for swords and pikes. Others made the shafts and handles, and still others strung bows and crossbows.

Still the endless night rolled on.

Taggart found Asyra resting in a corner, head between her legs. It was hard to tell when you were supposed to sleep when you were constantly busy and had no sun to gauge time by.

"Are you alright?" asked the old mage.

Asyra looked up at him with weary eyes, "Just tired. And worried."

"About what?"

"This," she said, pulling the crown out from behind her like a dirty rag, "I think I've doomed us all, just because I put this stupid thing on."

"So why did you?"

Asyra shrugged, "I dunno. I didn't really believe it would do anything. But I think it wanted me to put it on. I'm not a ruler, but it thinks I am. Now nobody else can wear it!"

"Is that a bad thing?"

"You tell me. You're the one who acts like he knows everything."

"What do you mean 'acts'?" Taggart said with a straight face, then relaxed to a fatherly smile, and sat down beside her, "No, I don't know that much. I've just been around a long, long time. It's easy to get the two confused. Now those guys down there," he gestured through the wall where the armies were assembled, "They know everything. Oh my yes. They know what is best for everyone, otherwise they wouldn't be Lords and Barons, would they?"

Asyra thought about this, then realized how silly the thought was, "No! They inherit the title from their parents, that doesn't mean they know anything."

"So the Crown wouldn't be any better off in their hands, would it?"

"I guess not. But why me?"

Taggart shrugged, "Why not? It didn't have to be you. It could have been anyone with the blood of Faustus in them. If the Crown called to you, don't think of it as your fate, think of it as the Crown's opportunity."

"But I'm not qualified."

"Bremore himself was just a pig farmer. This is the way of things. A new dynasty, a new humble beginning. Looks great in the history books, and bards love to sing about it. Like your friend there," he pointed at Victoria across the way, who was watching them talk and writing down notes in her book, "she's knows what's going on here. This is a beginning, a first step, and she seeks her immortality by being the only bard to claim 'I was there'."

Asyra tried to read the meaning in his words, "Are you saying we can't help but win?"

"Oh, heavens no! If they get their act together down the hill, we're going to get slaughtered. You will be taken prisoner and probably forced to marry Lord Dassenti so his heir can wear the Crown. If you're lucky you'll make him happy so he doesn't want to get rid of you afterwards."

Asyra's jaw dropped, "How can you say that?"

Taggart's voice changed to something younger, and far more sarcastic, "I'm not going to spit on you and tell you it's raining, Queenie," he said, then allowed his voice to return to normal, "This is a desperate time, but it's not without hope... there's just not a lot of it, either."

Asyra's eyes watered as she looked around the refugee camp and thought about the war about to happen, "All these people... I just don't want anyone to get hurt. There are enough wars in the world to fight without the pointless ones."

Taggart nodded and gave her another fatherly smile, pointing back down the hill, "That's why you'll be a better ruler than they are."

Perah-Perah had informally been designated the second in command next to Baron Kell of the castle's defenses. Baron Kell kept himself busy with engineering, so people tended to come to Perah-Perah with other problems. On one such instance, several guards dragged two men in black, hands tied behind their back.

"Lady Nydassa," one of the guards said, kicking one of the guards to the ground, "We thought you might like to see this. They were carrying a small arsenal between them."

Perah-Perah looked the two over, they were beaten up pretty bad, but the purpose of the outfit was unmistakable, "Assassins, huh?" she then looked over the guards, there was no way they took these two out, though they might have roughed them up afterwards, "Did Sephilith capture them?"

"Who?" asked another guard.

Perah-Perah sighed, "The orc woman," she started to realize that by the end of this siege these peasants and soldiers would remember all of their names, except hers. "Oh, yes. She caught one climbing over the north wall, the other over the east. They say they wanted to talk to you."

"Me?" she said with some surprise, then suddenly went defensive. Maybe they wanted to get caught, to get close to her! She took a step back as one of them raised his head.

"The members of our organization would like to offer you great financial reward if you would give us the Crown."

"You must be joking. Why would I want to give it to you? What would you do with it?"

"Sell it to the highest bidder, of course. Along with guarantees that our organization would not be acted against. With our help we can get you and your friends out of here and safely away from the coming battle. Who needs to be Queen if you have the money to live like one?"

Perah-Perah tapped her chin, "Let me think about this... Ummm... Throw them in the north-east tower."

"Yes, ma'am!"

Perah-Perah grabbed one of the guards by the arm before he left, and added, "Very gently."

Sephilith was relaxing by assembling and disassembling her quad-crossbow. It was a fine piece of machinery, but needed regular maintenance, and you never knew when you would have to make a repair in a crisis situation.

Soo stalked the shadows, finding the best route to avoid being seen. She crept as quietly as the night she left the Ranger camp. She breathed in rhythm with the gentle breeze so no one could hear her. She almost managed to sneak up behind Sephilith.

"Hello, Ranger Child."


"Dang, you are good!"

Sephilith cocked one of the bow strings back with one mighty hand, "That's why I'm still alive. What's your excuse?"

"Hey, Seph, relax. We're on the same side now."

"We'll see. And don't call me Seph."

"But that Oool guy does."

"He's allowed," she should have known better than to give her this opening.

"Why? How did you and that gnome get so chummy? What is it, because he's not prejudiced or something?"

Sephilith snorted, remembering one of Oool's jokes, "No, he's totally prejudiced. He thinks all us big folk look alike."

"Wow, that was different."


"You laughed."

Sephilith's eyes narrowed, "I did not."

"Well, kinda. That snort was kind of like a laugh. You should try it more often."

"Go away, Ranger Child."

Soo started to, then turned back, "I know you hate Rangers and all, and I can see why. But you know I was raised to hate orcs. Friends of my family never came back to camp because of the orcs. We are raised to defend people, and a lot of the time that involves fighting your people.

"The thing is, when I first met you I thought you were a big, mean, ugly, vicious person who only thinks about killing. But now I see you're a big, mean, ugly, vicious person who's actually pretty cool... oh wait, that didn't come out right, did it?"

Sephilith smirked. It really was hard not to like Soo, she was an unequaled disaster when it came to both language and deceit, "Close enough."

Rosileen found Victoria taking a nap against a wall with her book open. Trying not to disturb her, she looked at the open page. It was the end of a ballad, describing what was going to happen tomorrow.

"Wow... it looks like we're going to have a great victory..." Rosileen wondered if her old friend had some kind of premonition about the battle, then the wind blew a few pages over and showed the alternate ending, "Or maybe not..."

Victoria opened one eye, "Don't take it personally," she said, "I just believe in covering all bets."

Nari spent his time utterly confused by how strange the prey had become. When he noticed an animal they were often completely still, and didn't even notice him. But by the time he jumped after them, and passed through what he thought of as the "fuzzy area" they went back to normal and ran off. Sometimes, they would run through back through the "fuzzy area" first and disappear before he had a chance to catch up. It got to the point where he mostly had to rely on Perah-Perah-Mother for food. Fortunately Nari had no concept of old age, otherwise he might have been worried.

Seemingly eons later, twilight came, and a day after that the sun rose. The spell finally faded, and time returned quickly to normal. Birds seemingly frozen in mid-flight continued as if nothing happened.

From the north, a fog seemed to be rolling in towards them. Victoria and Rosileen watched the slowly advancing fog from the northern battlement.

"This might delay the battle a bit," said Victoria. Soldiers don't like to fight if they can't see. Bows are useless, commanders can't give proper orders, people get lost... this just might buy us some more time."

Rosileen nodded in agreement, but something seemed wrong about it. It didn't feel right.

Lord Dassenti looked up at the restored castle, "Why wasn't I informed sooner about this?!" he demanded, but got no answer, "Great Salias, this will complicate matters. How are we going to get in? With the forces of Halffarthing on their way, I can't risk sending my main troops up there."

One of Dassenti's captains spoke up, "Perhaps the Lance of Light?"

"The Paladins? Hmmm... yes, they are probably the best armed and armoured of our troops. And if they believe the Crown is in the hand of those who would destroy it... well, their fanaticism comes in handy that way, doesn't it?"

"Yes, sir, it does."

Nobody know how the war started. Some say that the humans and dwarves traded one insult too many. Others that there was a breakdown of communication and orders as the fog rolled in. Still others believe that evil forces within each camp whispered destructive words and convinced each side to strike first.

However, many believe that the key commanders on all sides simply couldn't believe they would travel all this way for nothing, and got restless. In other words, it was too much trouble not to go to war.

The battle began around the same time as the fog rolled in. So from the rebuilt castle, all that was seen was a sea of white mist, and the unrelenting cries of people fighting and dying. Lookouts noted that the cries were coming towards them as the battle went on, and the citizens of Dogford prepared for an attack. Men and women were posted with crossbows along the battlements. Buckets of hot oil were ready to pour on those who would climb up the sides. And if they breached the front gate, a specially Oool-modified ballista, designed to throw out a hundred arrows like buckshot, was ready to slow their advance.

Taggart looked out to the sea in this all encompassing fog, and frowned. Perah-Perah and Asyra were by his side.

"What's wrong?" asked Perah-Perah.

"This fog is not natural," he answered slowly, "It's here on purpose."

"Like the fog in Merrick," Asyra commented, "Only there it was used to hide the movements of the mad friar's zombies."

Victoria and Soo stood guard over the front gate. The sounds of battle came closer, until at last they saw a hundred men charging up the hill, most carrying a fallen tree hastily made into a battering ram.

"Paladins!" yelled Victoria in warning.

Asyra felt something very wrong, memories of the Paladin's service to the Kings and Queens of Gassenti flooded into her head, "Don't shoot them! Whatever you do don't shoot them!"

To everyone's surprise, the first bash against the gate made it buckle. Actually, this shouldn't have been surprising at all, since they didn't have the material to make a proper front gate or portcullis.

"I don't even know if our bolts and would work against them," said Victoria, "They've got full plate armour on, and it's probably magical."

Another bash against the gate made it give in a little.

"Bloody Paladins," muttered Sephilith. The Lance of Light was notorious for their single-mindedness to duty, pig headedness and unshakable dogma. They denounced the Treaty of Halffarthing, and slaughtered orcs on sight simply for being orcs. As a result, Halffarthing banned their passing through their lands, which sometimes caused even more bloody incidents by these zealots. She had to hold herself back from pegging a few off through their helmet slits.

"For the King!" some shouted, and the others cheered.

Asyra's small pointed ears perked up, and she looked to Taggart. Taggart smiled, as if reading her mind, and nodded. She rushed down into the courtyard, with Perah-Perah right behind.

"Stand fast!" she yelled, "Take cover, but do not fire!"

Most of the people wondered why they should listen to her, but assumed from her booming voice that she was in a position of authority. The truth was she had never spoken this loudly before in her life.

The gate began to give under the Paladin's battering. Baron Kell stood by the Oool Ballista and prepared his archers to fire. Asyra didn't tell him to stand down, however. If this didn't work they'd need all the firepower they could get.

A final blow knocked the shoddy gate to the ground, and dozens of Paladins in gleaming holy armour rushed in-

-and saw Asyra wearing the Crown of Gassenti.

Half the Paladins stopped in their tracks. It was undeniably the Crown, though legend and lore might have exaggerated some of its importance and power, its appearance was burned into their memories. Not to mention the Crown wanted to be noticed. It was quite capable of making everyone around it pay attention.

The other half, however marched single mindedly towards her, intent on saving the crown from some unknowable evil.

"Paladins of the Lance of Light, I hold you to your blood oath, to serve the Monarch of Gassenti! Halt!"

The advancing Paladins halted. Amidst the sounds of battle elsewhere, here there was only silence. None of the Paladins were sure of what to do. They had been told the Crown was in the hands of traitors, and that they might be told lies about it. They were told to hold fast to their faith and not waiver in their duty. Yet to a man they had wavered. There was something about the Crown, its aura, and more importantly, about the woman who wore it that made them doubt their orders.

In the back some of the Paladins fell to one knee, sword held out in service. The rest fell like dominos. Asyra breathed a sigh of relief, and Baron Kell had his men stand down.

The head Paladin, who was the closest to her and last to fall to his knee, looked at her with a hint of mistrust, "But how can this be? The Crown can be worn by no one."

Looking at the almost naive expressions on their faces, she decided not to tell them the truth. Not directly.

"There had always been an heir, but for his safety before and during the Dark Years, his identity had been kept secret. Then it was all but forgotten. I am descended from he."

This seemed good enough to the Paladins, who stood as one and roared, "LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!"

Baron Kell scratched his scruffy beard, leaned over to Asyra and whispered, "Are you really the Queen?"

The Crown told her she was, and whispered confidence to her. However, she was anything but convinced. Asyra shrugged, "I dunno."

Word soon reached Lord Dassenti's camp. "Well, that could have gone better," said the captain who had suggested the move.

Dassenti rubbed his thick moustache, "Yes, it certainly could have, soldier."

The newly demoted captain sighed, "Er... yes sir."

The battle seemed to subside as the fog got thicker. More people were fighting each other in chance encounters than strategic movements.

The Paladins had positioned themselves to protect the castle on the outside. Since they did not use ranged weapons, they felt they were more useful outside than in. The gate was hastily put back into place, and braced with carts, barrels and anything else they could find.

Up in the castle, Taggart walked along the battlements. He knew what was hiding in the fog, but he had to wait for the right moment. Too soon and it might lose its impact, there might even be time for bickering and blame throwing before they landed. Too late and there would be no time to prepare. He was also still weak after the castle's reconstruction, even with all the power-stones to help him.

His left hand seemed to shrivel up and wither. Taggart glared at it a moment, and willed it back into a healthy form. Yes, it seemed that things were coming to an end, and thank goodness. Three hundred years was a long time for anyone, except an elf, and he was no elf. He only hoped things turned out better this time.

Taggart took a deep breath, out of habit rather than need, and raised his hands, "Now is as good a time as any," he said, and began to chant.

The air stirred, and a great gust of wind began to blow. He could feel himself weakening, but it was too late to back out now. A wall of heat extended out from him in all directions, burning the mist away and pulling back the veil.

Suddenly everyone could see everyone else, and war was about to start fresh, when the first person cried out, pointing to the sea. Heads turns and war cries turned to cries of alarm.

There, approaching the shore for all to see, were the Black Ships of Murhn. Over two hundred of them. On their hulls and waving in the wind were the symbols of demon Dralg, whom all the Emperors of Murhn unquestioningly served.

Battles stopped in mid-blow, and cries for truce were made. At once the differing factions of the island joined together and began planning a defense. For now, the Crown was forgotten.

Gassenti had bigger problems.