Cato couldn’t take his eyes off the patch of black ground in front of him. Patch was the wrong word, really. It was everything in front of him, beyond the red glow of the object he’d thrown out to…mark the area? He was still trying to put the pieces together of what had actually happened, but that was difficult because he was also trying to comprehend the exact number of soldiers he’d watched disappear in an instant. Or die. He wasn’t quite sure, and that, more than anything, was bothering him.

Magic was a part of life. Cato knew this and was fine with it. Rarely, though, did he get such an intimate look at what magic was capable of. If magic could wipe out an entire army, what was the point of armies? What was the point of anything? And why were they so worried about ancient evils with magic so powerful? Nothing made sense when confronted with such a reality.

“You two alright?” the voice snapped Cato out of his own head and he turned around to see Maeira standing in front of glowing, magical portal. Beyond, he could see a stone city, but little else.

Cato opened his mouth but found that no words worked their way out. Thankfully, Kyros was standing right next to him and, as usual, was never at a loss for words, “What happened?!”

Maeira’s eyes shifted to look beyond the brothers for a brief moment, her voice uncomfortably stoic, “I called in a favor.”

“That was a favor?!” Kyros waved his hand behind him, “What kind of favor can completely destroy an army? And how did Anica know someone owed you that much?”

“She’s royalty,” Cato spoke the words before he had completely put the pieces together, but it quickly began to make sense. Looking from his brother to Maeira, he added, “I doubt her father would be kind to anyone that let something happen to her.”

At that, Maeira made a sound as if she was holding back a laugh, “It’s my mother they’d have to worry about.”

None of this seemed to please Kyros, though, “But that was an entire army! Just…gone! Why is this Mad Lord such a problem if magic can do that?!”

“Because magic of that power requires great sacrifice. A number of people gave their lives to do what you just saw,” Maeira’s tone was suddenly uncomfortable again, and it didn’t help that she let that hang in the air for few seconds, “Come on. We need to make that sacrifice mean something and figure out what that tome is.”

Cato and Kyros both looked behind them to the black, empty ground and the city beyond. It was all still a lot to take in, as not long ago their lives had tended to involve the kind of magic that kept lamps burning in the rain instead of the kind that could annihilate armies in a flash.

After a few short moments, the brothers looked to one another. Ancient evil creatures and unimaginably powerful magic was apparently their life now and it was becoming clear that there wasn’t very much either of them could do to change that.

Without a word, they turned back to Maeira, who seemed surprisingly patient, and followed her through the portal. With one step, they arrived within the walls of the Citadel. Massive buildings towered all around them, making the star-filled sky difficult to see. Banners hung from everything, all displaying a yellow star on an orange background. All around them, heavily armored soldiers wearing the star and in varying levels of orange moved about.

Even in the torchlight of the city, it was easy to spot Kieran in his green tunic, standing against the wall next to their portal, his arms crossed and eyes darting back and forth as he watched each of the soldiers that passed. He barely acknowledged the three of them coming through the portal beyond a very quick glance. Cato had yet to see him look so…nervous.

Before anything could be said, there was a strange pop from behind them and the portal disappeared from existence. Behind it stood a tall, dark skinned man in a mix of shining plate armor and bright orange robes. Despite all the color, it was the scowl on his face that Cato couldn’t look away from. That and the disapproving look he was receiving from the man.

“Where is Anica?” Maeira put herself between Cato, Kyros, and this man as she spoke, straightening up in a way that matched his loom surprisingly well for someone much shorter.

The man didn’t answer right away. Instead, his eyes turned to Kyros, giving him a similar long, careful looking over like the one that Cato had found himself under. Eventually, he grunted and looked over Maeira, “My aide has taken her to the library to decipher this tome that you claim to be so important.”

Standing behind Maeira, all Cato could see was the way she planted her feet, but somehow he knew she was glaring a hole right through this man’s skull, “Thank you, Sir Torran. If you would please take us to Grand Master Ora, we can discuss the situation more thoroughly.”

Torran continued to stare over Maeira’s head, and in doing so gave one of the most fake attempts at a polite nod that Cato had ever seen, “At once. This way.”

He then stepped right through where Maeira was standing so that she had to quickly shift out of the way, pushed between Cato and Kyros forcefully, and started on up the street. Maeira grumbled something under her breath that Cato couldn’t make out but was sure wasn’t polite before falling into step behind Torran. Kieran was right behind her, giving the brothers a look that told them to follow and that he hated this as much as they did.

So Cato and Kyros did the only thing they could and followed them all through the city. All the while, it was hard not to notice that there seemed to be no civilians of any kind in the city, and everyone was watching them with critical eyes. This was not exactly what Cato had been expecting when they had told him the Citadel would be a place with people willing to help.

But, then again, he knew he should have expected this. At this point, Cato was fairly certain nothing would happen in a way that made sense or was particularly helpful to anyone.