That morning, Axra told Twila about their encounter with Airell.
“I see,” Twila muttered. Your mother lost her familiar.”
“I didn’t know about it until our first trip to the wastes,” Axra said. “I didn’t expect to see her again after that, though.”
“It sounds like she was worried about you,” Twila observed.
“She didn’t even recognise me the first time we met,” Axra stated. “How did she recognise me this time?”
“It’s possible that she’s holding on to a small shred of sanity,” Twila said. “If so, she may have understood it when you told her that you’re her daughter and just had trouble processing it. Seeing you again after that probably triggered that realisation and she came out of hiding, afraid for your safety.”
“You think?” Axra asked.
“It… it would explain everything,” Lilly said.
“I think it’s sweet,” Lysara stated. “She wants to protect her long lost daughter, even in her madness.”
“I hate to say it,” Bonnie began “but she said that she was dangerous, right?”
“She did say that,” Axra confirmed.
“Then we should be extra careful if she shows up again,” Bonnie said. “You in particular, Princess.”
“Bon, that’s cruel!” Lysara cried. “You…”
“She’s right,” Axra interrupted. “I don’t know what she was like back when my dads knew her, but the times I’ve met her, her behaviour has been erratic. I’m sure that she realises that too and that’s why she warned me.”
“Bu… but will she come back?” Lilly asked. “I mean… if she was so worried about what she might do then she might, you know, return home and leave us in peace.”
“It’s hard to say,” Twila said. “In her state she may forget that she warned Axra and seek her out again, or she may want to see Axra so badly that she comes back, just intending to catch a glimpse of her.”
“But that’s too sad,” Lysara said. “How can you plan to fight your own mother?”
“I hope that I don’t have to,” Axra stated. “Truly I do. But Bonnie is right, we can’t discount the possibility.”
The first thing that Zero did upon returning to Nervius was declare a week of mourning, a week dedicated to the memory of Axel. It was funny, they’d first partnered up a good thirty six years ago, when they were still young men .
At first, it had just been a matter of convenience. They were two fledgling mercenaries with very different skill sets. He had needed someone who could withstand attacks and deflect attention long enough for him to cast his strongest spells. Axel, on the other hand, had needed someone who could watch his back and handle negotiations. Together, they had been unbeatable in combat.
Before either one knew it, their partnership had developed into more. So much more. When the opportunity to take control of Nervius came, it seemed natural for them to do it together- rule side by side. Now, now it was all over and Zero was lost.
What does one do when a half of their soul fades away forever? How does a man continue? Even ruling over his kingdom seemed a hollow pursuit. Still, he would keep going. He had to.
Nervius was the land that Axel had given his all into dragging from the ground and making powerful. It was the kingdom that Axra would someday inherit. He wanted to see his daughter, but he didn’t look forward to telling her about Axel, seeing her heartbroken face and wiping away her tears.
“Father, Dearest,won’t you come eat?” He heard Rachel’s voice behind him. He had considered sending her back home, but he couldn’t. Even in his last breath, Axel had expressed the desire to protect her too. A task which Zero was determined to continue in his stead.
“I’m coming,” Zero said. “Sorry, I was lost in thought.”
That night, Axra and her companions camped near Mt. Deflum, they continued the watch rotation as before. The next morning they had a quick breakfast and packed.
“So, where’s this labyrinth?” Axra asked.
“I don’t see any caves,” Lilly added.
“I don’t know exactly where it is,” Twila said. “I can try a spell to reveal any illusions. If the cave entrance is blocked then we should be able to find it that way. In the meantime, Fang can fly around and look for any signs of it.”
The little dragon flew from her shoulder and started circling around the mountain.
“Another series of caves,” Lysara muttered. “Why can’t people hide their powerful artifacts at a nice beach or something?”
“Because someone would have found it already if it was somewhere easy to reach,” Bonnie said.
Lysara moved over and hugged Bonnie. “Bon, we have got to teach you about joking around.”
“Found it!” Twila declared. “It looks like the entrance is near the summit.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “And it’s guarded.”
“What kind of resistance is it?” Bonnie inquired.
“One of them looks like a human,” Twila muttered. “He’s sunning himself on a stone near the entrance. The other… some kind of serpent. It’s easily a good twelve metres long with a sharp, pointed face. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Why would an ordinary human be around something like that?” Lysara wondered.
“M… maybe it’s actually friendly,” Lilly said. “I mean, it could be his pet. He… he could live inside the cave.”
“I’m having Fang return,” Twila reported. “We can worry about that when we reach them.” She rubbed her eyes.
“Guess I have to actually walk,” Velvet muttered. “What a pain.”
“We… we’ll have to take the dogs with us, though,” Lilly said. “I mean… there’s nowhere safe to leave them.”
“Agreed,” Axra said, stooping down to pet the nearest canine. “But the wagon can stay here.”
“Well, let’s start climbing,” Bonnie said.
“Wait!” Twila cried. “Given the size of the serpent, climbing would leave us at a disadvantage if they’re hostile.”
“You have another plan?” Bonnie asked.
“We fly!” Axra declared.
“Precisely,” Twila said. “We’ll leave Fang, the horses and the dogs down here while we confirm the situation. If it’s safe, we can use the flight spell to bring them up with us, at least until we can find somewhere safe to leave them. If there’s trouble, then we can return for them when it’s dealt with.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” Axra asked. “Let’s fly up there!”