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My mind had become overrun with thoughts of the emerald. Its beauty. Its power. Now all that remained was how I would steal it.

Rainer came to get me the following morning. I was eager to see where he would take me today…hoping it was to see the Last Emerald again. To my disappointment, he took me to the Proving Grounds just outside the castle. It was where Rainer and I used to battle while practicing our wizardry. Therefore, this was a place of bad memories for me. It was the last place I had been before running away, and since my return I had avoided it.

“Why did you bring me here Rainer?” I said with shortness in my tone.

“Father asked me to meet him here this morning. He has a very important assignment for me.”

“So why am I here?”

“I hoped you would join me,” He said it with such heartfelt sincerity I almost believed him.

I scoffed. My brother’s reaction showed that he actually meant it. I suddenly felt uncomfortable.

“You really want me with you?” I asked.

Rainer smiled and nodded.

I smiled back but didn’t respond. Rainer had been trying very hard to repair our friendship since I returned, but I continued to keep my distance. It would only make what would happen easier for us all.

“Rainer, are you ready?” Our father’s voice joyously rang out into the Proving Grounds. He hesitated upon noticing me standing next to Rainer. “Ethan, good morning, son. I didn’t know you were going to be here.” The surprise in his voice seeped forth like the smoke from an uncontrolled flame. It hung over my head casting a dark shadow. This was the father I’d expected upon my return to the castle. Loveless and ashamed.

“I asked him to join me father,” My brother replied.

Our father’s eyes moved sharply between us as though he was attempting to figure out if I had some sort of spell cast over Rainer. Surely, my brother couldn’t be acting of right mind to invite me. After a moment, he cleared his throat in what appeared to be an attempt at ridding himself of whatever he actually wanted to say, but he thought better of it. Then proceeded to address Rainer and ignore me.

“Rainer, the king and queen will be making a journey to the northern territory of Mistasia and I need you to join them as their protector.”

My brother’s face was overjoyed. It was a great honor to be the keeper of the royal family’s protection.

“I must remain here at the castle.” My father suddenly stopped his explanation. He was unaware that I knew about the last emerald being here and that Rainer had shown me its location. It was obviously the reason he wasn’t joining the King and Queen on their trip. He was always at their side.

“I’m trusting you with their safety.”

“Thank you, Father.” Rainer bowed his head.

Our father glanced in my direction for a moment. The emotion he had shown me the night I had returned was nowhere to be recognized. Then he turned and left.

Rainer was excited. “This is amazing. Brother, you must promise to come with me. It would mean a great deal to have you by my side.”

“I don’t think that is such a good idea, Rainer.” I was referring to both the fact that our father obviously didn’t want me to go and the fact that I would be away from the castle, which made it more difficult to steal the emerald.

He placed his strong paw on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. He looked down upon me, standing a full head taller.

“Please, Ethan. It would be good for us to spend time together. I have missed you so much, brother.” Then he pulled me close and hugged me so tightly it became hard to breathe.

I agreed to go with him but quickly regretted my decision.

“Great. We leave tonight!”

Rainer dashed off to collect supplies and weaponry for the journey. I stood stuck in the grass…not literally, but just unable to move my feet. I hoped that if I didn’t reenter the castle I wouldn’t have to go tonight. It also meant that I would have to wait until my return to steal the emerald.

The air had cooled since Rainer and I were in the Proving Grounds earlier in the day. The wind had picked up. It blew through my fur and cut into my skin like a thousand tiny arrows. Fires from the village where doused. I watched as a few elves scrambled to relight them, but the winds made it a worthless attempt. Most gave up and returned to their homes.

I stood alone in the field between Cadieux Castle and the village. Closing my eyes I could see the glowing green emerald hidden away within the castle.

“Ethan,” A voice whispered in my ears. I opened my eyes, but no one was around. My gaze fixed in the distance…the exact place where I knew Sorcerer LaCroiux’s hideout was deep within the Wolverine Forest. The tree tops were barely visible beyond Dragon Lake. Again I closed my eyes, when I heard my name repeated whistling in the winds. My master was calling to me.

Then, something landed on my shoulder. I jumped and brandished my wand.

“Ethan, it’s me!” Rainer yelled.

“I’m sorry, Rainer. You just startled me.”

Rainer smiled at me. He was so excited about our journey. I on the other hand, was dreading the next few days. We walked through the village making small talk, but discussing nothing important. I found myself drifting in and out of the conversation until we stood before a large pile of wood sitting next to the lake.

I didn’t say anything right away, just looked at my brother waiting for the explanation, because his expression showed that he was not surprised to see the enormous pile of trees cut and laying on their sides in a triangular stack.

“I had the elves gather wood for us.”

“Really? Do we have enough?” I sarcastically asked while looking into the sky to see the top of the pile.

Rainer chuckled slightly and slapped me in the chest lightheartedly. “Come on, Ethan.”

“Are we building a fort?” I asked.

“Ah…no. We are building a boat for the king and queen to use on their journey up Red River tonight.” He said this as though it was a small feat. Just create a ship that by the look of the wood pile would be able to transport every elf living in the kingdom.

“Well, you have fun with that.” I replied jokingly.

Rainer held his wand out and began motioning the wood to move. In just a short time, Rainer had moved most of the wood into smaller piles and had begun molding and shaping them like pieces of clay.

“Are you just going to stand there?” Rainer questioned while flattening one tree trunk into a plank board that he used to create a small section of the ship’s deck.

I scoffed and shook my head in disbelief that I found myself building a boat for two people that I planned to remove from the throne.

It only took the two of us a little over two hours, but by the time the royal family began to gather with their assembly at the edge of Cadieux Village, we placed the finishing touches on a magnificent vessel worthy of carrying the king and queen along Red River. The boat was tall and narrow with sails made from woven tree leaves and cattails from around the lake.

We quickly set sail.

The air remained cool as the sun completed its journey over the edge of the world. Stars slowly began to emerge one by one like creatures peeking out from their homes and looking to see if it was safe to venture out and play with one another. A calm settled into my body like I had never felt before. The smell of the salty water rushed below us and mixed with fragrances from the Wolverine Forest.

“Ethan,” A voice whispered.

My heart quickened its pace, energizing my body. A surge of adrenaline burst through my veins to my paws. It was the unmistakable voice of my master calling to me from the Wolverine Forest which was laid out before us.

“Be prepared,” his voice commanded.

“Ethan,” Rainer’s voice rang out clearly breaking LaCroiux’s hold over me.

“Yes,” I responded while attempting to swallow my fear.

“Are you okay?”

I nodded, but could tell that it really hadn’t satisfied Rainer’s worry.

“Is there something wrong? Do you sense something?”

“No. That is ridiculous,” I awkwardly laughed at the thought hoping he didn’t really know the truth and was just waiting for me to admit it. I was becoming paranoid. “Do you?”

“No, my brother, I wasn’t gifted with such senses.” Rainer replied.

It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds after he finished when I heard it for the first time in my life. It was a sound that I would never forget. The dreadful screeching of Sorcerer LaCroiux’s new pets…Vampire bats. The soulless creatures from the Deadly Spray Forest descended upon our ship with wings spread, claws drawn and fangs exposed. Even in the moonlight they were mightily frightening.

Two crashed down on the deck. Their wings spanned over both sides of the ship. They were much taller than our Elven Warriors, and so quick.

I drew my wand, as did my brother. We each blasted a Vampire bat. Rainer’s spell landed directly on his target’s chest flinging the retched beast from the ship and into Red River. My shot was not so precise. It hit the vampire bat’s left wing, which caused the beast to screech at us. The high-pitched wail stabbed my ears like a million knives. I covered them with my paws, but it gave little relief. Rainer fired again sending the other vampire bat off the ship and into the dark waters below.

There were dozens more buzzing above us like pesky bugs. We ducked when one swooped in and sliced at us with its razor-sharp claws. The deck of the ship was in chaos as the Elven Warriors battled the Vampire bats. Some used bow and arrow, picking off the bats as they dove in for a chance to knock an elf into the waters below. I watched as a young elf met just that fate and tumbled over the rail into the darkness.

“Watch out!” Rainer barked as another winged creature dove toward us.

I raised my wand, but found myself frozen, unable to cast a spell to save myself. The creature closed in fast, but my brother tackled me just as its claws missed my furry face.

“What are you doing?” I asked slightly annoyed.

“Saving your life!” Rainer quickly stood up and began searching for something in the chaos of our ship.

“What are you looking for, Rainer?”

“The King and Queen!” he replied.

A bright flash of light exploded at the far end of the ship, which was now rocking violently back and forth.

“What was that?” Rainer asked. He ran off before I could venture a guess, but I was pretty certain that I knew what had just happened.

I followed my brother as he moved through the battle like a maze, ducking and dodging arrows and swords. A Vampire bat jumped in front of him, but Rainer blasted the beast out of the way without hesitating. It was actually pretty impressive to see his courage.

When we reached the far end of the ship where we had seen the light, I caught my first glimpse of our plot taking form. Sorcerer LaCroiux held the queen around the neck as the king pleaded for her release. LaCroiux wore a long gray robe with a hood to guard his face, but I could feel his presence.

“Release her!” Rainer demanded. He held his wand at the ready. After standing there looking back and forth between LaCroiux and Rainer for a moment attempting to figure out who I should be pointing my wand at I chose Rainer…and then quickly swung it over to LaCroiux before my brother noticed.

Am I supposed to reveal I’m a bad guy yet? I thought.

“Let her go, now!” my brother barked. He looked so calm and courageous. I found myself proud of him just when I should have wished for Rainer to crumble under the pressure.

I could barely see the glimmer in my master’s eye hidden in the shadow of his hood, but it was there. Everything was going according to his plan, and now it was time for his next move.

LaCroiux released the queen, who rushed back into King Steven’s awaiting arms. Just as he grabbed her and pulled her close LaCroiux struck.

“Portio!” He yelled. A bright orange light escaped his hand. It moved through the air like it was riding a wave into shore before reaching the king and queen and engulfing them. It grew brighter by the second until it hurt my eyes to watch.

I closed my eyes and turned away. When the brightness diminished they were gone. The only thing remaining was the wicked yellow smile of Sorcerer Pierre LaCroiux, which gleamed from his shadowy face.

“NO!” Rainer cried. His panicked voice sent a chill up my spine. He reacted so quickly, firing spell after spell in a dazzling array of light directly at my master.

LaCroiux calmly deflected each spell seemingly sorting them by color into certain directions. Then, when he seemed to have grown tired of this sad attempt at an attack, he mustered up a fireball and hurled it into Rainer’s chest. My brother collapsed.

“Rainer,” I ran to his aid. He was breathing, but was unconscious and very warm to the touch, yet not burned. “What are you doing?” I angrily questioned my master.

“Ending this,” LaCroiux removed his hood. His long braided beard emerged first against the moonlight. He walked toward my wounded brother like an animal stalks its prey. There was a glint of red in his eyes.

“No,” I began to say when LaCroiux grabbed me by the neck and lifted me up. My paws dangled in the air, and I couldn’t breathe.

“Retrieve the stone, Ethan.” Then, he flung me down on top of Rainer. Another flash of orange light burned my eyes and then it was completely dark.

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