The next morning Fayte was found asleep in the castle's great hall.
"You were told to rest," Lady Feralina said.
Fayte opened his eyes. They felt sore with gunk crusting on his eyelids. He rubbed them, feeling the strain and soreness of his back having spent the night here on the bench. He came out after failing to find sleep in his room. But as uncomfortable as his rest was, it was dreamless and for Fayte that could only be a good sign. Perhaps Jeremiah had stood guard over him as he slept. The black coffin lay on a bed of white roses at the end of the great hall. Two Vlazion knights stood vigil next to it.
"Do you accept that he is dead?" he asked.
The Master-Knight was wrapped in plain clothing with a worn traveller's cloak thrown over her simple shirt. Fayte could hear the soft clinks of a chainmail underneath them though. She looked at him, the sunlight gentle on her fair face, her piercing eyes now softened by loss.
"No," she said, turning around to look at the coffin. "And yes. For I see the truth that which my heart denies."
Fayte looked to where Jeremiah lay.
As do I… "The assassin will not strike with two knights of such renown protecting me."
Lady Feralina hardened her expression. "Yes, Commander Reyner and I have considered that. The plan is for us to guard you from the shadows, but neither one of us is trained in the ways of stealth. We have devised a method of communication with the good priest, Wilson Sayde. If you are in danger, the priest will send a bolt of light into the air or his dragon will let out a screech. Commander Reyner and I will come rushing at once."
"But you will not be at my side in an instant," Fayte said, wondering. "Father is no fool."
"Indeed," said a man.
Fayte rose at once when Commander Reyner joined them. The man was dressed as Lady Feralina was, plain, but the Commander's face was well recognized in Hylan. Both knights were without their shields and their swords spoke nothing of the Order or the name Vladertz.
"He has more faith in you than he lets on," said Commander Reyner with a sigh. "Torn between duty and kinship. You will both learn of this pain in time."
"What's the plan from here on, Sir?" Fayte asked.
Lady Feralina explained. "We received word a few days ago from an agent of the Underlord about the assassin. This was a day after you were attacked by the lake. We were also told that the Underlord believes more will come. The Order of the Elements knew about this and was supposed to have assigned an escort to you."
"There were no escort. Lord Quxtin only sent a mage," he said, but that made him wonder. "She did manage to subdue two of the attackers herself though."
"A single mage is hardly an escort," Commander Reyner said. "However Quxtin is not a thoughtless man. I trust he has his reasons and your father will be sure to hear them."
Perhaps he is still upset over father stealing the woman he loved from him. But Lord Fengoth had assured him otherwise. Could the old wizard be wrong?
"Why is the Underlord sharing these information with us? And doesn’t Lord Tyden believes that the assassins work for the Underlord?"
"We have informed him otherwise but my father is a stubborn man. And no, it is not uncommon," Commander Reyner said when he saw the doubt in Fayte. "Likely the assassin has caused a territorial dispute between the Underlords."
"And so the Underlord is using us to resolve the matter for him," said Fayte.
"A matter that affects us as well," he reminded Fayte. "It is for ourselves that we act and not the Underlord. However we do require his assistance. Since then we have attempted to make contact with the Underlord and his agent but to no avail. I understand you came into contact with both he and one of his agents before. I was hoping if you knew of any ways to contact either of them."
The first time Fayte met with an agent of the Underlord was in a massive slavers' camp. Emily had been kidnapped and was brought there to be presented to a group of people interested in purchasing her. The Underlord's agent was one of them. The agent subsequently provided Fayte with information on her whereabouts after they lost her at the slavers' camp. And that was in Redpath.
Fayte recalled how the agent had spoken with a poor old lady selling odd trinkets by the street.
"If she is still there, the woman might be able to tell us how to find him."
The two knights considered it.
"Are you done in Iredis with regards to your pilgrimage?" Commander Reyner asked to which Fayte answered a positive. "Very well, you shall make for the mercenary town. If we find ourselves without luck in the matter of locating the Underlord, we shall turn to Eronaxe and inquire about the bandits that ambushed you."
"The mercenary guild might not welcome our presence there," Lady Feralina said, unsure of the plan.
"Might not?" Commander Reyner laughed. "They will not welcome us there. But I doubt they are foolish enough to lay a hand on Lord Frendon's son."
There it was again, people speaking as though his father was invincible.
"Commander Reyner, if I may ask," Fayte said, raising his hand to wave Wilson over when he heard the doors to the great hall open. "My father threatened Lord Tyden with the lives of the entire Vladertz clan last night when Lord Tyden held his blade to me. I mean no disrespect, but Lord Tyden was taken aback by my father's words, as though he feared my father. And I oft hear, even from the Underlord's agent, that my father was not one to be reckoned with. Why is that?"
The Commander of the Whiteguards and Lady Feralina exchanged a look, greeting Wilson when he joined them.
"Your father is remarkably talented with the sword and shield, and some would say he is also favoured by Sera," said Commander Reyner. "Your father is strong, but it was not for strength alone that he was made Lord-Knight. Leadership and intellect, to name two. As to why so many fear your father, ask yourself, Fayte, in what circumstances do you find others making such a comment about your father."
It took a moment. "When my life is threatened."
Commander Reyner nodded. "Fear not a man who fights with valour and honour. Fear a man who fights with nothing left to lose."
They broke fast in the dining hall with hot bread and cheese. Fayte hadn't the appetite but Commander Reyner insisted he ate more to keep up his strength. His father had returned to Rondiar with the King and the Queen the night before. Emily was to resume her visiting.
It was in the dining hall when Fayte finally saw Priestess Joanne. She was seated at the far end of the table with two other older ladies. The priestess fed herself, fingers pushing a chunk of bread into her mouth, then she chewed, and later swallowed. Lifeless, her actions were.
"She will never forgive herself," Wilson said, a healthy spread in front of him. "The woman was tearless when I met her last night."
"I suppose you couldn't ask how it had happened?"
Wilson shook his head. "Her dragon led help from the nearby village to her and they found Joanne with his body. She was unharmed mostly, save for some scratches and a robe soaked with river water and blood."
They left quietly once they were done with their meal.
Outside the gatehouse, a foul stench of waste overcame them. With over a hundred gryphons and improper roosts for the animals, this was to be expected. Younger squires from the Order would surely be summoned to assist in the clean-up. Fayte and Jeremiah had often been sent to perform such deeds for the people of Hylan. Nobility had little weight once you were in the Order, even if you were the Lord-Knight's son.
"Hey boys!" John yelled, waving.
They were surprised to find the man waiting for them. He was sharing a cup of ale with the gryphon masters who hurried back to work when they saw the Commander.
"A friend?" Commander Reyner asked.
"A wanderer we met in Ironsville," Fayte said, explaining how John was found with a Templar's sword and how they were later asked by the Queen of the Water Nymphs to bring John along with them.
"Is that true?" the Commander turned to Wilson. "The Queen of the Water Nymphs herself commanded it?"
"A message passed on from her to me by her children," Wilson corrected him. "But aye, it was her command to bring this man along with us."
"Then it is not my place to interfere," Commander Reyner told them. "But beware, Fayte, for if this man fights as you say he does, he is no simple mercenary."
"I had intended to introduce him to Captain Resfield once we arrive at Eres Star City, but I understand the Captain is here?"
"Nay, Resfield returned to his city last night," said Lady Feralina.
The Commander nodded. "But it is a wise decision. The noble Jonar family has the bloodline of the Templars. Resfield may know more."
Fayte, Wilson, and John set off first, with Commander Reyner and Lady Feralina to follow soon. John had heard news about a squire's funeral at Castle Vladertz while he was in a tavern at Iredis. When he found out that Fayte was gone, he thought it was only natural that Fayte would be there. A plausible scenario, but Fayte doubt John was without help.
Sera guided this man to us, he thought, glancing at Wilson when John told them how he came to be at Castle Vladertz. Again.
With the remainder of their journey restricted to the air, Fayte expected his pilgrimage to end several days earlier than he had planned. Although the detours he might have to make for the investigation will likely change that. He doubt he would be able to make it for Emily's wedding still.
Nor do I wish to attend.
They soared across the sky under clouds and in the light of the sun.
"Is it just me or is this gryphon panting a lot?" Wilson asked.
Fayte leaned forward to look at the beast. "What's the matter, girl? Is it the heat?"
It was still early in the morning, the sun yet fully awoken. This gryphon came from Castle Vladertz itself, properly fed and rested last night. Fayte had flown on enough gryphons to know that something was off when he saw the gryphon with her tongue hanging loose.
"Heal her," he said at once.
Wilson's hands were glowing. "She is not harmed nor exhausted."
"Hurry up, boys!" John yelled from ahead. "Or I might just leave ya behind!"
Just as the man finished his words, his gryphon ceased movement and they began to fall. Fayte wanted to save John and he would if his gryphon hadn't followed suit. They descended rapidly, the gryphon's legs writhing about but her wings refused to flap. Within her eyes Fayte saw fear swirling deep with them.
"Hold on!" Wilson yelled, his eyes and body flaring with light.
The light expanded and encased them. Fayte felt themselves slowing but it wasn't enough. A mass of green charged at them from below and Fayte braced himself as they crashed into hard land. For a while everything was dark. He lost consciousness briefly and was pulled awake by the sensation of falling. He pushed himself up and off the gryphon. His chest was sore and he could taste blood in his mouth, no doubt bitten his tongue or cheek during the crash.
Preston growled and whimpered as he nudged Wilson up. The priest sat up and groaned, flinching when Preston happily sprayed him with a blast of white flames.
"Alright, enough, enough!" He swatted the dragon away. "Go do Fayte."
"I'm fine, I don't-" A blast of white flames enveloped his face and he choked for a few seconds before Preston finally ceased. He felt renewed and his head not as dizzy as before. "Fine, thank you."
Unfortunately the gryphon didn't fare as well.
"She gave her life to protect us," Wilson said, kneeling beside the majestic beast. "I could sense her thoughts, her struggle, as she manoeuvred herself to take the impact for us."
"There was fear too, was there not?" Fayte said, to which Wilson nodded grimly. "It was as though she lost her ability to fly… in mid-flight."
Fayte could only imagine losing the ability to wield his sword in the middle of a battle.
"Looks like poison to me," John said.
They were both surprised to find the man unharmed. In fact he looked as though his gryphon never crashed, though it did. The poor beast sprawled on the ground some distance away from them.
"How did you survive?" Fayte asked, approaching the man.
"I'm a lucky man," he said with a wide grin that soon fled from him. "Someone is trying to kill ya again."
This man knows magic, he thought, finding no other way to explain his miraculous escape from death. "So it seems. And he was at Castle Vladertz."
They heard a screech and from above them two gryphons swooped down, slamming them with a gale of wind so harsh it knocked them off their feet. The beasts moved swiftly, riders on their back, and Fayte thought them to be Commander Reyner and Lady Feralina, but he was wrong. These were not even knights from the Order.
"What happened here?" the knight said, adorned with an armour the green of dark moss, spaulders carved into the shape of wings, and from their half-helm sprouted two more. "What have you done to these poor beasts?"
First Vlazion knights and now them. "We have done nothing. They were poisoned it seems."
The knight strode forward, a towering man at least two meters tall. It was hard to look upon his face with the sun behind him. Circling above them was his partner and a gryphon much larger than the ones now dead on the ground.
"Your words against those of two dead gryphons," the knight said, his wide jaws tight with distain.
He drew his sword and his gryphon leaped forward with a ferocious screech.
Fayte backed away and drew his as well along with John, but the second gryphon knight swooped down and knocked them off their feet. Even Wilson was not spared or shown any courtesy. Preston snarled and threatened to breathe fire but the gryphon could tear him apart with a single swipe.
"By the authority of Magister-Lord Raymius of Gwedoniar City," said the Gwedonian knight. "I hereby place the three of you under arrest for the murder of these gryphons."