The journey to the crypt had been a long one. Desert sand clung to her eyelashes and dusted her clothing, making them look like ruddy copper rather than the bright red and gold they had been. She reached out a hand, her fingers splaying over the smooth stone of the entrance, her eyes closing as pale blue light traveled from her to the locked door. âBatsâyek.â Open. She said and heard the sound of creaking gears and straining ropes. There was a thunk and then the doors slid open, grinding against the floor before sticking. Darkness greeted her and she slipped through and whispered a command so an orb appeared before her then floated slowly down the shadowed hallway. Dust had long settled here on the coffins set in alcoves along the walls and the subtle scent of long dried up oils permeated the air. This crypt housed many a long dead warrior, buried with their most prized possessions, but the thing she sought was in the room at the end, the thing they supposedly guarded even in death, the one she needed.
The crypt went down, down, down into more darkness and the air grew cooler with each step, causing goosebumps to rise on her flesh. It was almost frighteningly silent, yet she persisted, undeterred. She only paused when she came across bones and upon examination realized that they belonged to others who had come here and died after springing traps. She said a small prayer over them then moved on. The orb paused at the ornately decorated door, the light causing the silver emblems to shimmer. This was the place, his prison. She took a deep breath and placed both hands against it, feeling a shiver run up her spine at how cold the metal was. She commanded it to open and then pushed with all her might, relieved when it gave way and freezing on the threshold at the sleeping warrior. He was bound and gagged on his knees, his head ducked down so dark hair obscured his features. It wasnât the fact that he was so well preserved that astounded her, but the fact that he had two sharp spikes driven through his back, that crossed and exited at his ribs, holding him there. Here was the one who could save her people from the undead horde coming their way. Some called him the Betrayer, others the Wraith King, but she knew him as Actaeon the Immortal. He had been imprisoned here so long ago that he was nearly a myth, but she had dared to hope he was real.
He began to stir, bringing his head slowly up as though it took tremendous effort. His intense, grey eyes met hers but she couldnât pin an emotion in them. He had been here so long by himself, an absolutely cruel amount of time to be alone and in the dark. She just hoped he hadnât lost his mind and therefore, his ability to help her. She spoke before she moved, âIâm going to take that gag out alright?â His eyes stayed locked with hers, not giving any indication that he even heard, but when she took it out she finally saw some emotion. Unsurprisingly he seemed relieved, working his jaw so that it popped a few times.
âAm I finally to be free?â
âYesâŚand Iâd beg of you to help me.â
âAre you the only one asking?â
âNot truly, Iâll explain everything and while I know you canât be controlled once youâre let go Iâd feel too badly making you stay like that much longer while we spoke. Please, if I let you go listen to me.â
âItâs the least I could doâŚthank youâŚâ she could tell he wanted her name.
âSemele, I presume you know who I am?â
âI am sure the stories about me are less than favorable.â
He nodded. âOnly some, that is surprising.â
She swallowed. âSo, how do I get these out?â She pointed at the metal rods.
âTheyâre enchanted, the spell is old.â
âI can reverse itâŚat least I can try.â
She saw amusement fill his eyes and it amazed her how he could even think to laugh when he had been locked away for so long. She knew if it had been her, rage and madness would have taken her. âThen release me.â
She stood, letting her fingers slide over the rods, feeling the magic dance against her skin. She closed her eyes, finding the path to reversing the spell. She began to speak, her voice commanding and confident as she erased the magic that held him. Actaeon could feel the binding unravel and he couldnât help but turn his head so he could watch her. Sweat dotted her brow, sand dusted her skin and clothes, and she was both powerful and beautiful. She stepped back, her hands moving away. âWhat now?â
âUntie my hands and I will do the rest.â
She made quick work of the knots then watched in amazement as he got himself free and began mending his wounds. âLet me help with that.â
âThank you.â As she began healing him he urged, âPlease tell me why you came here.â
âMy people are in danger of being wiped out. My father and the emperor didnât think it was wise to come here for you butâŚsomething has always told me the bad stories about you arenât true, that you were noble until the end. It just doesnât make sense after a lifetime of being nothing but noble and honest that youâd turn on the man you served.â
âI was put in here to make sure I never told my side of the tale. Thank you for believing in me. Even without further explanation Iâll help. I owe you my life now.â
âJust help us protect ourselves and I wont ask you anything again.â
âI have no reason to hide anything from you. Ask what you wish, Iâll answer honestly.â
âAlright, thank you. Is there anything else you need before we leave?â
âNo, my sword is not here, the emperor in my time locked it up in his armory as a trophy. I want it back, it was a gift.â
âIâm sure it wonât be hard to get it back if I ask.â
He nodded. âThen we should go.â Actaeon had to shield his eyes upon exiting, the sun was so bright, brighter than he remembered, but beautiful all the same. He closed his eyes, inhaling the fresh air, feeling the warmth on his skin. âThis, I remember. Itâs still just as hot and dusty, still just as wild.â He let out a chuckle as he opened his eyes and Semele thought she saw a flicker of sadness there for just a moment.
âSome things have changed, the city for one. My emperor is an elf so some of the architecture is moreâŚâ
âElegant?â She nodded. âI remember the desert clans, I never thought they would take over an empire though. They kept to themselves for the most part. I must have been here longer than I thought, but then again it all becomes one long day when youâre locked in darkness.â
“How did you manage to stay so sane? I mean, you hardly seem like someone who has been locked up with nobody to talk to and in utter darkness.”
âI lived a long time before I became theÂ betrayer. I had many memories to fall back on to keep me going. I also held on to hope someone would finally free me. Iâd imagine different ways it might happen. Someone needing my help actually was one. For all the bad stories I knew there still had to be stories of my abilities in battle.â
âWhat actually happened all that time ago?â
âI discovered how the prisoners of war were being treated. There are certain things you shouldnât do, even to an enemy. He was cruel and callous under that mask of civility. Then there were his slavesâŚits still hard to think about the things I discovered he was doing.â She truly believed him, every word. Her father and the current emperor might find her naive but she hoped when he told his story to them they would be able to look into his eyes and see he was telling the truth.
Semele was amazed at how easily he moved over the sand. It was as if he hadnât just been locked away, like even though his muscles and joints were stiff from lack of use, they still remembered. He didnât even pause when sweat began to dot his brow, simply removed the coat he wore and slung it over his shoulder. She studied him as they walked, his face set in a mask of determination, his too old eyes that had seen much more than she could begin to imagine. Dark hair hung messily down his back, having grown long after years of not being trimmed. âI know I need a haircut.â He said as he looked at her and she felt a blush of embarrassment heat her cheeks.
âSorry, I didnât mean to stare.â
âYouâre a mage, itâs what you do. You study and I must be quite the specimen.â His eyes seemed to see right through her, cutting straight to the heart of things like a sharpened blade. âI admit, you are intriguing as well.â
âYou follow your convictions even if they lead you nowhere. What if I had been nothing but a myth? What if you had found only bones?â
âI would have found another way to save everyone.â
âYou are as admirable as you are beautiful. Men must not know what to make of you. I bet you surprise them with the power you wield.â
She couldnât help but smile. âPerhaps.â
He chuckled. âI think I may like you.â
âGood because I already like you. Itâs admirable that youâre truly coming with me, that bitterness didnât consume you and make you utterly selfish.â
âAll that time didnât break me of the fact that you hurt yourself more being angry than you do anybody else. Iâm not saying there wasnât times it was hard not to be bitter but I never let it take me.â
“Well, I can cut your hair for you when we get to where we are going.”
âAre you sure?â
âI know you feel indebted to me for releasing you from the bounds of your prison, but I feel a debt too that canât be repaid simply by righting a wrong that was done to you. Besides, cutting hair is a simple task, Iâm good at it.â
âThank you then, I like it about here.â He held his hand about halfway down his face.
âShort for safety?â
He smiled. âAbsolutely. Short hair is harder to grab, something some of my opponents learned the hard way.â
âA legend using underhanded methods? How surprising.â
âItâs not always bad to be a little underhanded.â
They ate as they walked, Semele asking more questions about him and trying to avoid the circumstances of his imprisonment. He seemed alright talking about them, but she felt rude bringing it up too much. Instead she asked about his childhood and why he had decided to become a soldier. He explained that warriors ran in his family and that he had been trained from a young age how to use a sword, how to move with speed and efficiency almost like an acrobat. He told her how immortality had granted him the time to further perfect his technique and learn some new ones. He had even learned a few languages along the way.
She enjoyed hearing about all of it so time flew as they traveled. She was surprised by how fast they made it back to her people when the trip to find him had felt so long. It made sense though, she had been stressed and worried the whole way there and Actaeon was a better travel companion than she could have ever imagined. âBefore we find my father and the emperor lets get you cleaned up and your hair cut. We might all get right to work and you deserve to be comfortable first. Iâm sure youâd even like a nice bath.â
âIâm that smelly?â He asked with a grin, causing her to lightly laugh as she blushed.
âDonât be, I know youâre just trying to be kind. Please, all that sounds wonderful.â
Semele took him to her living quarters and through to the adjoining bathroom. âThis is new.â He said as he looked around.
âYeah, the previous emperor preferred copper tubs, but the one now liked the bathhouse look so he had everything torn out and replaced the tubs with stone pools.â
âHot spring water?â
âYes and filters out to let clean water in.â
âAmazing, thank you.â He pulled his shirt off and her eyes were drawn to his torso. He was well lean of build and surprisingly well muscled for a man who had been locked away for so long. She noticed a few scars here and there, some across his back, one up high that looked like a sword had pierced him. He also had a few on his arms. âFrom training.â His voice startled her and a blush crawled up her neck as she met his gaze. âThe ones on my arms are from training.â
âOh, I see.â She swallowed.
âIt happens when youâre first learning how to block.â He smiled. âSo, ready to cut my hair?â
âYeah.â He took a seat on the lid of her toilet as she looked in a drawer for Scissors, taking the time to calm herself down. As she grabbed a pair she promised to herself that she would quit being rude. Staring at him and bringing up what he just went through was out of the question, even if she was dying to know how he still looked so good. Was his magic truly that powerful? Her ever curious mind was begging to know, to learn from such an obviously skilled man. She began cutting, silence hanging between them until she finished. âTake your time getting cleaned up.â
He walked over to the mirror, a smile adorning his face yet again. âThank you so much Semele.â
Semele left him alone and he quickly stripped off his remaining clothes and stepped into the hot water and sank down into its waiting heat. He let out a sigh of relief as aching muscles began to relax. He had not realized how sore he really was until now. He allowed his head to rest back on the edge of the pool and closed his eyes, enjoying this moment, knowing it may not last if they tried to lock him up again.
Semele was surprised by her father as she left her room, running right into him, her heart stuttering in her chest. âDaddy, you scared me.â
âI was informed you returned with a guest.â
âYes, I did.â She finally said, feeling suddenly nervous.
âIs it him?â She nodded. âIs he in there?â He nodded at her door.
âYes.â He started past her and she quickly stopped him. He arched an eyebrow at her, looking slightly amused. âSorry, itâs just heâs bathing. I was going to get him clothes.â Her face felt suddenly very hot.
âI see.â He sighed. âCome then, he can borrow some of mine.â
âHe must be here to help if he came all this way. Iâm still unsure but he obviously hasnât hurt you and as you said when you left, we need all the help we can get.â
âYouâre a smart girl Semele. Just because we are unsure about how you want to help doesnât make it fair to discount it. Donât thank me, youâve earned the right to have your ideas and opinions heard and given a fair chance. How does he seem so far by the way?â
âYouâd never know now that Iâve cut his hair he had been locked away so long. He could walk here just fine and is still fit somehow. He told me his side of the story too and I believe it. He truly wasnât in the wrong. The emperor in his time was doing bad things, torturing people. Actaeon stood up for what was right. I feel it in my heart now more than ever. You know the stories of him before he betrayed his emperor. It never made sense to me how he could change for no reason.â Her father nodded and soon they entered his room, collected some clothes then brought them back to her room. âIâm leaving the clothes on my bed. I wont be in here, Iâm going with my dad to talk to the emperor.â
Actaeon washed his skin and scrubbed his hair, letting out a sigh of relief as he rinsed. He got out and dried then wrapped the towel around his waist just in case. The clothes Semele had brought for him were comfortable, made for easy movement and the hot weather. He would have to consider having some tailored for his stay. He opted out wearing his boots. Even though he wanted to look proper, he knew they needed to be cleaned. He headed out, not wanting to leave Semele, her father, and the emperor waiting.
âYou are sure he doesnât hold any bitterness towards us?â Emperor Sgaire asked.
âI am, he traveled here willingly and didnât so much as raise his voice at me. I know youâre worried, especially with everything thatâs happening, but he wants to help us.â
âAnd you are sure you can trust him?â
âI do owe her my life.â Actaeonâs voice startled her and she turned as he stepped fully into the throne room and crossed over to them. âIf it makes you feel any better, I shall swear fealty to her.â
Sgaire actually cracked a smile. âBut not to me?â
âIf you can prove you are better than the one before you then I may consider it, but Semele came for me on her own, she rescued me, and I owe her everything.â
His smile rose again. “I suppose swearing to her is just as good since I know I can trust Semele every bit as much as I trust her father. We have much to talk about. Iâm sure she wasnât able to go over everything with you on the way here. I have the plans and a few maps I want to show you in my study. I think a few things have changed since your time.”Actaeon followed Sgaire, Semele and her father, paying close attention as the emperor brought him up to speed on their situation.
âNo wonder you were desperate youâd let her come to find me. When did the Ettins and Hybrid Sentinelâs get so close and when did they become so volatile?â
âThey first became close when an Ettin female and male Sentinel mated about fifty years back. We arenât sure precisely when they started becoming so hateful though. Weâve tried speaking with them but they arenât interested in much discussion.â
âI know how they got the flying wolves on board though, do you?â
âThe emperor of my time was also involved in the trade of selling their paws and wings.â The three of them looked horrified.
âNo.â Semele half gasped.
Actaeon nodded âI canât imagine there will ever be any bringing them back to peace with us. Wolves donât often forgive such heinous crimes against their packs.â
âWhat do we do? How do we stop them without completely wiping them out?â
Actaeon pulled one of the maps over. âYou say they are here, but the Sentinels and the wolves have wings. If you can get enough mages, we can put a magical net in the air. It should be invisible of course. Once they fall to earth, they can all be restrained. As for the Ettins, we dig a pit fall deep enough to catch them, but shallow enough they wonât come to any real harm.â
âHow are we going to draw them in?â
âWeâll start the battle here, get the Ettins invested in attacking then we retreat. If we dig a trench here and place planks across for bridges, then your men can escape without falling in.â He looked to Semele. âI want you to hold the net up against those in the air once itâs in place.â
âBecause you are the most powerful person magically in this room and I believe you can do it.â
She was surprised at his words, giving a smile and nod. Her father nor the emperor were shocked, it was something they had already felt too. âIâll gather the ones bravely going into battle with us and inform them of the new plan. Thank you Actaeon. If you truly stay on our side through this I will make sure something is done to thank you and apologize for the wrongs of the previous emperor.â Sgaire said then walked out of the room.
âI should go with him, get some rest before this all starts Actaeon. You seem in good condition but I canât imagine youâre truly completely alright.â
âYeah, do you want something to eat?â Semele asked and that charming smile about stopped her heart.
âPlease, something light though.â
âOf course. Oh, I almost forgot, your sword. Come with me.â Her fingers wrapped gently around his wrist and his heart skipped a beat at her touch. She took him to the old armory where the previous emperor had kept his most prized possessions. There were swords and bows, books, and even enchanted jewelry. Actaeonâs sword rested in the center of the room, proudly displayed as a trophy.
Semele released him and he stepped up to it, reaching shakily out, letting his fingers wrap around the sheathe. He swallowed as he pulled the blade free. âI never thought to see it again.â
She touched his shoulder and he quickly sheathed his weapon and wiped at his face. âForgive me. It was a gift from my father.â He chuckled. âSuch a stupid thing to get so emotional over.â
âYou getting emotional is anything but stupidâŚwould you like a hug?â He gently took her in his arms, surprised at how good it felt to hold her and have her hold him back. She held him until he let go. She couldnât imagine all the emotional pain he had gone through. Semele was happy he had finally let a little of it out instead of keeping it inside. Semele knew he might not even realize how much pain he was holding back, for anybody that would have been a tortured existence, essentially being buried alive when you had done no wrong. âBetter?â she asked softly.
âYes, I needed that.â
âLet’s get you some food now.â She had salad and soup prepared then walked him back to her bedroom. âLay down for a bit aright?â
âSleep laying down would be welcome. Please donât hesitate to wake me when Iâm needed Semele.â
âAs long as you relax until then we have a deal.â He nodded then hugged her again, hoping it was alright to hug her without asking. She instantly hugged back so he relaxed, happy to know he could do this anytime he needed. Once in the room he settled underneath her blanket, laying his sword at his side. Half to protect himself in case the enemy forces surprised them and half because he worried about losing it again.
Semele found her father and Sgaire out in the courtyard talking to a group of five mages. They were telling them to gather those with combat experience and a high affinity for magic. They wanted them to not only be able to cast such a large spell as the net, but also to defend the city if anyone should break through. The mages headed out and both her father and the emperor turned to her. âHow is our guest?â Sgaire asked.
âSleeping, I think he was more exhausted than he was letting on.â
âGood, your father and I were about to head over to the barracks and speak to the soldiers. Would you like to join us? Actaeon has given you a huge responsibility and you should know the men and women you will be working with.â
They started walking across the courtyard and Sgaire said. âI would like you to stick with him, Semele since he seems to trust you the most.â
She blushed. âI planned on it.â
âHe does seem quite attached to you.â He chuckled. âTo swear his loyalty to you alone, such a bold move.â
âI almost feel like he was testing you.â Semeleâs father said.
âMore than likely.”
They arrived at the barracks where introduction after introduction took place. Semele made special effort to remember them all and hoped they didnât lose a single one of them though she knew that was high hopes. Problems like this seldom ended without someone loseing their life. She listened as Her father and the emperor spoke of their plans and precisely what they would be expected to do. They all seemed enthused, completely confident in the strategy they were going with. She thought to herself, âgood, confident soldiers always do betterâ. Once Semele found herself alone with her father she asked, âDo you think Sgaire plans to clear Actaeon’s name after this?â
âHeâs already mentioned it.â
âWhen you were tending to Actaeon.â
âHe deserves it more than anyone. Itâs unfair and cruel how quickly his reputation was tarnished.â
Her father chuckled. âYou really like him donât you?â
She blushed. âWellâŚI mean heâs so fascinating and kind and heâs helping us when he doesnât have too. Heâs so honorable.â
He nodded. âAlright, you have my blessing.â
He hugged her, laughing. âIâm so proud of you, Semele. Proud of you for sticking to your convictions and proving us wrong.â He pulled back to look at her. âYou should go to him, see if heâs still sleeping and prepare yourself. We donât know how long this fight is going to take and I need to get the mages to help dig the trench. Magic is faster.â
âAlright.â She honestly felt happy to have a reason to check on him. Actaeon walked back to her room then quietly entered, smiling when she saw him resting still, he deserved to. She couldnât help but walk closer, standing there a few moments until she felt like a creeper and began to exit her room.
âSemele?â She suddenly heard him say softly.
âIâm sorry, did I wake you?â
âIs everything alright?â
âI was just checking on you.”
He sat up. âLet me get up.â
âNo, itâs okay, really.â She felt bad he felt so compelled but he gave her such a reassuring smile.
âI feel much better, Iâm glad you came in here so I didnât sleep all our peaceful time away.â
âDid you have any dreams?â She inquired, still curious about him in general.
He blushed. âNo.â It felt like the first time he lied to her but she didnât push it. He could have countless reasons not to bring up whatever his dream was about.
âYou really can go back to sleep.â
He shook his head as he stretched his arms above his head then got up. âHas anything happened?â
âNo, daddy and the other mages are going out to dig the trench and the soldiers are ready to help.â
âGood, how are you feeling?â
âReady to get this over with, maybe a little nervous.â
He nodded as he lifted his sword from the covers and her eyes followed it. He gave a sheepish smile, rubbing the back of his neck. âI wanted to keep it close.â
She had to admit his unexpected embarrassment was adorable. âThatâs okay, I understand. Would you like to go on a walk with me or something since youâre up? We could get some tea if you donât want to.â
âIâd love to, we can talk. Iâm sure you have many questions and I want to get to know you better.â
Semele waited for Actaeon to put his boots back on then they headed for a path Semele knew was safe and had taken many times. She told Actaeon as much, not wanting him to worry about an ambush of any sort. âRegardless, I have my sword back on my hip, I wouldnât let anything happen to either of us. Weâre quite the pair, you with your magic and me with my sword. She blushed again though she could see he wasnât trying to flirt. He truly had that much faith in their abilities.
âSo, when this is all over, whatâs the first thing you want to do?â She wanted to have a positive conversation with him.
“To continue spending time with you like this.â He answered honestly.
âAs Iâve said, I find you very intriguing. I very much like being around you Semele.â
Her face heated. âI very much like being around you too.â
His smile, the smile that made him look years younger, that lit up his eyes and chased away the shadows lurking there, had her heart racing. âAn old man like me?â
âYouâre not that old.â
âI have centuries on you.â
âIâŚI donât mind.â He looked at her questioningly. âI meanâŚâ she cleared her throat. âSo what do you think of the changes?â
He stared into her eyes for a moment, searching her gaze with his. She forced herself not to look away. âTheyâre welcome.â He finally answered. âI should thank your emperor. If he had not taken the throne, I would have never met you, I would have never been saved.â He let his hand slip gently over hers and pulled her to a stop. âI am truly lucky.â He brought her fingers to his lips. âYou are an amazing woman, Semele.â
She was frozen, her whole body seeming to react to him. She had been so eager to find him, to learn about him but he was so much more captivating than she could have ever imagined heâd be. He had this pull and she wondered if he had it with everyone. He smiled again, letting her hand go just as slowly and carefully as he had taken it. They spent all the time they had until the battle at eachothers side, neither wanting to part. There was so much determination from everyone to finish this and while Semele thought sheâd be more nervous about going into battle she was ready, calm, cool and collected. Every one had faith that she could do her part so sheâd honor them by having faith in herself.
Semele asked him a few questions about his past, about the different people he knew and how many wars he had been in. She was amazed to find he had served more than one emperor in his time and he admired most of them. He talked about his childhood, about how hard his father had trained him, and about how wonderful both of his parents were. They walked in silence for a few moments until they came to a stop next to a tree. They stared out at the moonlit sand. âWould you like to know about my time in my prison, about why I still look like this?â He suddenly asked and her heart stuttered.
âI do, butâŚâ
He looked into her eyes, smiling. âYouâre afraid youâll upset me?â
âI want to tell you.â
âIf youâre sure you want to, you truly donât owe me any kind of explanation.â His smile only grew more amused, still shocking her he could be so jovial. âRest assured Semele I know you, you are an amazing, incredibly giving woman. Iâm sure no matter what you do for others you expect nothing in return but I find myself wanting to know everything about you so itâs only fair you know everything about me. So I will tell you about my time down there.â He took her hand, finding it harder and harder not to touch her, especially since she never rested or seemed like it bothered her. âPain has never been a big problem to me so I moved as much as I could. Even before being put down there I knew I couldnât starve to death so while I didnât know how long Iâd be there I knew that one day, somehow Iâd be free so I needed to keep my muscle mass.â
âDoes not needing to eat run in your family?â
âYeah, I mean, its uncomfortable to be hungry but for whatever reason we donât actually have to eat anything. Thankfully I discovered down there that even the discomfort eventually goes away. I do enjoy food though so Iâm happy to have it again.â
âDid the previous emperor know you wouldnât die?â
âI donât think so, that was so long ago Iâm not sure what all he knew about me though. I retreated to my memories frequently but I chose ones that made me happy, he obviously wasnât someone I wanted to think about.â
âDid you do anything else to keep sane?â
âBugs would come in and sometimes underground animals would tunnel their way down there and mess around. Iâd just listen to them, sometimes create my own little story of their lives to amuse myself.â
Semele felt her chest grow tight and a lump form in her throat. âWow, I canât imagine.â She swallowed. âHow cruel, to leave you there.â
Actaeon could hear the sadness and anger in her voice and he once again pulled her gently to a stop, only this time he drew her into his arms. âDonât be sad for me, Semele, I wallowed enough the first few days I was locked away and I made peace with it.â
He leaned back and lifted her head. âBesides, I may never have met you, so please donât be sad.â
She let out a little laugh and he smiled. âIf I had been there, there would have been no way they would have locked you up. Iâd have made the emperor apologize and step down.â
âI bet you would have.â He chuckled. âNo more tears. Smile for me, itâs makes every single moment locked in that place worth it.â
She couldnât imagine how that could be true, how knowing her could possibly make all that misery worth it, but she could tell he meant those words. She gave him the best smile she could and it warmed his heart. âAs I understand it war will be upon us in the morning. We should rest. I have absolute faith in you tomorrow, have faith in me too.â He didnât want her laying her head down tonight with any anxieties. She already meant too much to him to let anything in the world happen to her or the people she cared most about. She wasnât sure she wanted to rest but tomorrow was possibly one of the most important days of their life. How well they performed would mean everything.
Actaeon walked her back to her room and lifted her knuckles to his lips again. âSweet dreams, Semele. I know tomorrow is a big day, but I want you to sleep well.â
âYou too and if you need me for anything, please come get me. I donât know if you have nightmares, butâŚâ
He chuckled. âOnly a brief moment of confusion waking up here. Iâm sure it will take a little while for me to get used to being free. Go rest now, Iâll see you in the morning.â
He left her there in front of her door, finding himself wanting to stay, but knowing it would be inappropriate. They hardly knew each other, but she had stolen his heart anyway. Semele went to bed that night thinking about Actaeon. She planned to make everyday new and exciting for him, hoping his time spent in that place would fade to a distant memory after awhile. She closed her eyes, making herself go to sleep so she wouldnât be exhausted in the morning.
Everyone was up with the sun and on their way as quickly as possible. Actaeon walked at her side, looking a little different than the previous days. She knew most warriors, especially as skilled as he was often were like completely different people when they were in battle. His amused, soft features were now serious, determined. He was obviously ready to do whatever needed to be done. She almost wanted to admire him but this wasnât the time. She needed to stay focused as well, she needed to do her job correctly to spare as many lives as possible. The day was particularly warm but it did nothing to slow or distract anybody, they were used to the heat and the people her father and Sgaire picked were better than letting elements get to them.
Actaeon stood at the head of the soldiers, the emperor by his side. He found his respect for Sgaire growing. Sgaire called the charge forward and their enemy rushed at them, growling and bellowing their hate. Soldiers and Ettins slammed into each other, but Actaeon kept it brief, calling a retreat so every soldier spun around and raced away, the creatures giving chase as planned. Actaeon glanced up at the sky, seeing the Sentinels and wolves drawing closer, readying to dive. He had complete faith in Semele, knew that she could hold the net and keep the creatures out of the sky once they hit it. He felt his feet hit one of the wood planks and turned his gaze forward. The moment he felt sand again, the planks were pulled away and the Ettins in their rage fell into the pit before they could stop.
Semele was amazed at how easily Actaeon carried out his plan and she barely felt the exhaustion of her magic being drained as she watched him. The Sentinels and wolves hit the net the mages had cast and many fell as if shocked. Those that managed to stay low enough were taken down by her father and the other mages. She held the net in place until the last of the winged creatures fell to earth and collapsed back onto the ground when she finally released her hold on it. She laid there for a moment staring up at the sky, panting and sweating.
She knew this wasnât over quite yet. They had gotten this under control but their anger would forever hold if they didnât talk sense into them. The wolves had indeed been wronged and maybe that was irreversible but they had to try and maybe if the other beings would just talk this out with them they could work out whatever had made them so angry as well. Emperor Sgaire ordered the Sentinel that was obviously their leader be released to stand on his own. âWhat do you expect?â He snapped bitterly.
âTo talk, please, you and your people keep refusing but I want to end this peacefully.â
âYour kind canât be peaceful.â
âWe can, I swear it, I am not like the emperors of the pastâŚI know why the wolves hate us but please, tell me why you and the Ettins do.â
âWe were driven out of our homes, treated like unintelligent animals, many of us were killed. We did nothing wrong, we hurt no one, yet we were treated as lesser.â
âDo you believe you are the only one who has ever been wronged?â Actaeon asked before Sgaire could voice anything further. âDo you think youâre the only one who has felt the cruel sting of betrayal? I spent centuries locked in a tomb, my name and reputation slandered because I stood up and revolted against the emperor I served at the time, but these people,â Actaeon waved his hand to encompass the soldiers and mages and Sgaire, âthese are good people, this emperor is a good and honorable man. Let him make amends.â
The Sentinel studied him. âYou are familiar.â
âI am Actaeon the Immortal and this is my home. We can all work together if you will speak to Sgaire.â
âActaeon,â the Sentinel nodded, âI see. I will speak to him then, without bloodshed.â
Sgaire wasnât even shocked Actaeons name carried such weight, not every race had been foolish enough to believe that Actaeon had been turned. He was embarrassed himself he once believed the slanderous stories that were spread. Sgaire was soon sitting and talking with the leader Sentinel and a few others from the group. They found reconciliation out on that field and began the journey back to the palace to make some changes official, to begin righting past wrongs. The wolves even tagged along though they seemed the most untrusting of this truce. Sgaire, Semele and her father were simply grateful they too were willing to bring this war to an end. Sgaire didnât rest until all the paperwork was done and stamped, ready to put into motion the next day.
âI thought Iâd find you here.â Semeleâs voice brought Actaeon out of his thoughts and he turned, smiling at her and holding out his hand. She took it and he pulled her to stand next to them under the tree.
âJust thinking and waiting. Sgaire makes everything official tomorrow and the wolves are still incredibly restless.â
âDo you think theyâll attack?â
âI donât know, but thereâs no harm in making sure. What about you, what are you doing wandering around?â
She blushed. âLooking for you.â
He smiled. âWell Iâm glad you did.â He lifted her hand and kissed her fingers, making her heart stutter.
âWho wouldnât want to spend time with the goddess who rescued them?â
He sighed out a laugh and ran his fingers nervously through his hair. âIâŚSemele, Iâve grown quite attached to you, you are so amazing and beautiful. You probably think Iâm crazy, but I really like you, adore you even.â
She wasnât going to play coy and ask him if he was serious. She knew he wouldnât say something like that unless he absolutely meant it. âItâs not so crazyâŚI adore you too. Youâre so handsome and strong willed. Iâve never met such an unbreakable spirit.â
He tucked her hair behind her left ear. âDoes that mean we could be more than just friends?â She could feel her face heating, her pulse picking up. She moved to kiss him and he smiled briefly before kissing her back. It was short and said everything she needed to say. Actaeon pulled her into him, feeling lucky and brimming with hope of a peaceful, happy future.
~ The End