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Chapter 30

A/N: Warning in this chapter for mild horror elements and mild sexual content


“I’m bored,” Drys announced. They were sprawled across the twins’ sofa, one of their wings draped lazily over the back. Nearby, IDE sat at a writing table, bent low over a stack of papers. Across the room, Maebhe and Kieran played a game, trying to swipe at each other’s hands without moving their feet.

“Would you rather be chased through Lyryma by a red dragon?” Maebhe asked.

“Or maybe hanging out in a Unity prison, waiting for the guards to come and taunt us again?” Kieran immediately joined in.

“I was more thinking of just going down to the market,” Drys countered.

Kieran and Maebhe dropped their game and turned identical pairs of gray eyes on Drys.

“I’d like that,” Maebhe said.

“We should probably give IDE some peace, anyway. I don’t want to be distracting,” Kieran said. “Unless you’d like to join us, IDE?”

IDE shook her head. “I teach children, Kieran. You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘distracting.’ I do need to stay and work on this lesson plan, though. Have fun without me – and bring me back some garlic snaps.”

“Oh! That reminds me,” Maebhe said, disappearing into the kitchen without explanation. She returned a moment later with a steamed bun that quickly disappeared into her jacket pocket. “If I go to the market without food, I’ll try to buy everything.”

The Cairn home was a modest, moderately sized building situated at one of the higher points in Orean’s outer city. Having been in the family for many generations now, it was one of the older buildings in the city – as such, it sat very near the inner wall.

Kieran paused to button his coat against the chill evening wind of their mountain valley. Finally ready, he started down the hill toward the market, Maebhe at his heels. But Drys didn’t join them. The faerie stared back toward the inner city, the wall visible over the tops of buildings.

“I have a more exciting pastime for us, I think. What is that building?” they asked.

It Maebhe and Kieran a moment to realize what Drys meant – orinians were, in general, superstitious about several things. Their birthmarks, said to bare the soul of an orinian. Lyryma, looming over their city to the north, dangerous and unfathomable. Finally, the building at the center of Home. It was charred black, crumbling and ancient, its towers visible from every point in Orean.

“Oh, that,” Maebhe said.

“Do you want legend or fact?” Kieran asked.

Drys tapped a finger to their lips, thoughtful. “Legend.”

“It belonged to Tellaos, back in the time of the Great War. His ghost still haunts it. No one will go near.”

“And the fact?”

Kieran cleared his throat and proceeded, as if reading from an encyclopedia: “It is as old as the great war – based on the brick lay and architecture, scholars suggest it may be even older. It’s hard to date it accurately by any other means, since it hasn’t undergone the weathering and decay it should have after nearly two thousand years. This phenomenon is still unexplained by scholars, not for a lack of trying.”

“So it’s just an old building,” Drys summarized.

“A damned old building,” Kieran agreed.

“Have you ever been inside?”

Kieran spluttered at that. “No! Of course not!”

“Afraid it’s haunted?” Drys asked.

“As if,” Kieran sniffed, sounding his age. “There are laws against it. It’s a safety concern. The building’s obviously not structurally sound.”

Or they’re trying to keep you out for another reason,” Drys suggested, the twinkly in their eye making it clear they were simply goading Kieran, at this point. Maebhe just watched, amused.

Kieran didn’t even seem to notice. “What? You’re insinuating that there’s that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on? What in Calaidia could the government possibly be hiding in a two-thousand year old castle?”

“There’s only one way to find out!” Drys chirped. “What do you think, Maebhe?”

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea,” Maebhe said. She couldn’t articulate why she thought it was a bad idea except that the building creeped her out, and that excuse might get her laughed at.

That, and she always had been a little afraid of ghosts.

“Thank you, Maebhe, for being sensible for once,” Kieran said.

“You faced Lyryma Forest! You came face to face with a red dragon and came out of it yelling at me,” Drys reasoned, taking Maebhe’s hand, now. “Wouldn’t this be exciting? Aren’t you even a little bit curious? I’m sure you want to know what’s in there as much as I do.”

“I…” Maebhe said, her resistance weakening. “I am curious.”

“You know, I saved your life. I’ll consider us even if you take me up there to explore.”

Maebhe raised an eyebrow. “That wouldn’t even remotely make us even. Are you really so curious that you’d throw away a debt owed to you?”

“I think I might die if I can’t see what’s in that castle,” was Drys’ whined reply.

“Fine. I guess we can go take a look.”

“Can I just point out that the inner wall is closely guarded?” Kieran asked. The old city had been used as a political center for decades, now – for that reason, and because kids had been sneaking in to vandalize the historic buildings – the walls had been guarded for just as long. “We don’t have any reason to be going to the city, let alone this late at night. The guards won’t let us through.”

“They’d let you through,” Maebhe said.

“I am not using my professional capacity to break the law,” Kieran replied.

“Good thing Drys can fly.”

“The guards would spot them. They’re all trained to watch for flying persons, as well as anyone coming to the gates.” Kieran crossed his arms, smug, as if that was that. “Can we go to the market, now?”

“Good think I know a way in that’s not through the gates,” Maebhe said, ignoring Kieran’s question.

Her twin’s smugness vanished in an instant, changing to a scowl. “What do you mean, you know a way in? Why haven’t you ever mentioned it before?”

“Because you’re a captain of the Orean guard, Kieran. Why in Calaidia would I mention it to you? Anyway, you don’t have to come with, you know.”

“Bullshit,” Kieran said. “Of course I’m coming.”

Maebhe grinned at him. “This way, then.”

Maebhe had discovered this entry point a few weeks before they left for Gallontea – she’d used it a few times, now, usually to sneak into the old city and visit Kieran on his shifts. It was a spot far along from the main gates where an adjacent building had collapsed into the wall, creating an easy – if delicate – path to climb up.

She started up it with the familiarity of a natural climber, not even bothered by the voluminous skirts she wore today, and looked back to see Drys and Kieran taking it far more carefully. Drys’ wings even flared out twice to help them keep their balance.

From there, they dropped to the other side and continued on to the castle, Kieran occasionally signaling for them to hide from guard patrols. The old city felt hollow at night, its streets wider than the rest of Orean’s, less cluttered – completely empty, in fact.

When they reached the castle, they found another wall surrounding it – this one modest, like you might find around an estate in the outer city. It existed as only an inconvenience, not a barrier – something to create privacy, not keep people out.

Without asking permission first, Drys simply scooped Kieran up and flew him over the wall. Before they could come back to get her as well, Maebhe wandered over to the wrought iron gate situated at a break in the wall and pushed. The cold metal gave with only a creak as protest, swinging in on hinges that hadn’t been used in—well, Maebhe had no clue how long. Centuries. Millenia. She crept through the overgrown foliage that might’ve once been a garden and got her first real look at Tellaos’ castle.

Up close, it made her sad. Seeing the weathered stones, the darkened holes where windows sat, the ivey climbing up the walls, attempting to devour the ancient bricks, Maebhe mourned whoever once lived here. Maybe it was really Tellaos, but more likely it was some lord or royal who died in the Great Wars or the revolutions thereafter.

She loved history, as an abstract thing, and knew that it was silly to mourn people who lived so long ago. She couldn’t help it. The place was bittersweet – loved, once, now destroyed.

When Kieran and Drys joined her in the battered courtyard, she didn’t look at them. She couldn’t look away from the castle. “You really want to go in there?”

“Yes,” Drys said, sounding less sure than they did when they proposed the idea. They shook themselves. “Well, we’ve come this far. Might as well, no?”

With a nod, Maebhe started toward the open doorway. The entire eastern wing was crumbled and exposed, like the hole in the inner wall on a much grander scale. From here, Maebhe had to crane her neck to see the tops of the castle towers.

Kieran swore and grabbed Maebhe’s wrist, pulling her back.

“What’s wrong?” Drys asked.

“I saw a face in the window.”

Goosebumps shot across Maebhe’s skin at that. She scanned the windows but saw nothing. “Which one?” she asked.

“Are you just trying to scare us?” Drys asked, eyes narrowing.

“I wouldn’t fucking lie about this!”

“Maybe your eyes are just playing tricks on you,” Maebhe said, taking another step toward the building. She wanted to see the inside, morbid curiosity burning within her.

“I don’t think…” Kieran began, trailing off. “It’s possible, I suppose. It was only a glimpse, after all.”

With that answer, Maebhe plunged into the darkness of the castle. She heard Kieran swear and Drys laugh behind her, both hurrying to follow.

“I could get in so much trouble for this,” Kieran said as the three of them spread out in the shadowy foyer, their eyes adjusting to the darkness at different rates. As a faerie, Drys had an edge on Kieran and Maebhe, there.

“Then leave,” Drys said.

“Yeah, right. This is the most exciting thing to happen since we got back to Orean,” Kieran said. He ran his hand along the smooth marble handrail at the base of a grand staircase. “I’m just going to be anxious about it.”

Maebhe brushed her fingers along the canvas of an old portrait – it was massive, took up nearly a whole wall. The colors had faded with time, which didn’t make any sense. This room was completely exposed to the elements, through the open doorway and the massive window openings. The painting should have disintegrated completely, by now. But Maebhe could still make out the subjects: an orinian woman with luscious red curls and an elegant dress, smiling warmly, kindly out at Maebhe.

She stood beside a crouching dragon, leaning slightly into them. The dragon was bigger than any Maebhe saw in Gallontea – bigger, even, than the red dragon in Lyryma. She could make out what color this one was supposed to be – it just looked gray, faded by time.

The dragon’s expression was harder to read, but they both looked happy.

“Perhaps this place really did belong to Tellaos,” Drys asked, coming up beside Maebhe to study the portrait. It was then Maebhe remembered that, in legends, Tellaos was a black dragon.

“The original orinian settlers believed so,” Kieran said, joining them. “The whole world did. It’s why we settled here – we wanted to be left alone after the Great War, and no one wanted to go near this place after Runderath’s famed defeat of Tellaos. The city just grew around it, after that.”

“But the Guardians aren’t real,” Maebhe said. She’d never been religious. Their parent weren’t religious, so neither she nor Kieran were ever exposed to it. The Guardians were always just stories, no more.

“The oanai believe Ellaes really exists. They speak about her like they know her personally, sometimes. Like she comes for casual visits,” Drys said.

“The oanai also believe everything in Lyryma is powered by magic,” Maebhe countered. It would’ve sounded silly, weeks ago, but after seeing Lyryma and standing in this castle, Maebhe’s statement sounded close-minded even to her own ears. She wandered in a different direction, exploring further.

“Be careful,” Kieran called after her. “This place is well preserved, but the structural integrity is still compromised. Don’t touch anything.”

“I won’t,” Maebhe called. She wandered to a darkened hallway—more art hung here, less personal, more artistic. They gave glimpses into the time before the Great War—a painting of a small, idyllic town, free of carriages or lights. A tapestry of a hunting party preparing for the chase. A faceless sculpture of something that might have been a dragon.

She followed the hallway to its end, entranced by the art. When the hallway opened into a wide armory, she told herself she wouldn’t go further. She almost succeeded in turning back around, but then she noticed a flickering light cast along the hallway at the opposite end of the room.

She opened her mouth to call for Kieran and Drys. Remembering Kieran’s face in the window, she stopped, thought better of it. Instead, she crept through the room, curious. Suits of armor stood on display as dark shadows around her, each looking too much like a person in the corner of her eye. She considered grabbing a sword, in case she really did run into someone, but she wouldn’t know what to do with it even if she did encounter trouble.

Following the faint light down another hallway, she reached an old stone stairway leading down in a spiral.  The source of the light hung in a sconce at the top step: an old oil lamp, its flame steady. Maebhe unhooked the lamp, marveling at it. She quickly adjusted it to lower the flame and the amount of light it gave off, then started slowly down the steps, careful not to make noise.

She heard a faint drip, drip coming from somewhere nearby – the lower she went, the damper and colder the air around her grew. The stone walls pressed close on either side, suffocating.

Then suddenly, she reached the last step. Holding the lamp high, she saw that another hallway stretched on before her – this one with iron cells on either side.

Briefly, she was transported back to Unity’s Island. She expected to find Íde and Kieran crouched in some dark cell. But even Unity’s prison had some sunlight streaming in – it wasn’t this cold, damp, underground misery.

She knew she should turn back, at least grab Drys or Kieran before continuing further. Kieran hadn’t brought his gun, but he at least knew how to fight.

She didn’t turn back. She continued forward, darkness falling away under the glow of her lantern. It was silent, her boots not even making a sound against the old stone, so careful was she – but then she noticed a sound, so quiet even her sensitive ears almost missed it.

Ragged breathing.

Moving in the direction of the sound, she came across a cell that wasn’t empty. A man sat in it, his face buried in his knees, brought up to his chest. His hair was yellow, matted, his clothes fine, dirtied. Maebhe could see the tips of pointed ears sticking out from his hair.

They weren’t the ears of an orinian.

She dropped to her knees in front of the cell, holding her lamp higher. “Hello? Are you alright?”

At the sound of her voice, the man jumped and looked up. He was pale, a fine sheen of sweat covering his skin despite the damp chill down here. He squinted at the lamp like he hadn’t seen light in weeks – then he squinted at Maebhe, disbelieving.

“Who are you?” he asked, voice hoarse. It wasn’t the accent of Illyon, but the man was unmistakably alfar.

“My name is Maebhe. I—I don’t know what to do. I didn’t actually think there would be anyone here. Are you hurt?”

“No,” the man said, then didn’t add any more.

“Are you…you’re not Amos Nochdvor, are you?” Maebhe asked, holding her breath in wait for the answer.

“You know me?”

Maebhe clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, Atiuh. I – yes. Unity is looking for you. Everyone is looking for you. They’re coming to Orean to find you, but I don’t think King Whelan knows – at least, I hope he doesn’t know that you’re really here. How did you get here?”

“That woman brought me.”

“Woman? What woman?”

But Amos only shook his head, not minding Maebhe’s urgency. She saw fear in his eyes. He was frail, shook in his skin. How long had he been here? It had been weeks since the incident in Illyon.

Maebhe pulled the steamed bun out of her pocked and passed it to him between the bars.

“It’s not much,” she said as he took it, relentlessly hesitant, “And I don’t have keys to let you out, but I promise I’ll get help. I’ll get you out of here.”

The alfar gave Maebhe a long, hard look, and Maebhe shivered. Diminished as he was, in this horrible little cell, it was the look of a King assessing a pledge. “Thank you, Maebhe.”

Before Maebhe could say more, she heard another sound – the clack of heels hitting stone. Maebhe and Amos shared a wide-eyed look, and Maebhe immediately blew out the lamp in her hand, plunging them into darkness. Without visual distractions, Maebhe can hear the footsteps more clearly – there’s a strange limp to them, an uneven cadence.

She also noticed the growing smell of decay.

“I’ll be back,” Maebhe whispered, barely adding breath to the sound. “I promise, I’ll be back.”

Amos didn’t answer, so she began inching her way down the hall, closer to the sound. She kept her back pressed to the iron bars of the wall, imagining herself flattened against them, and hoped that she wouldn’t run into whoever was coming down those stairs, hoped that they hadn’t noticed the light of her lantern, hoped that the steady drips of water on brick covered the sound of her breathing.

She heard when the newcomer reached the final step and knew the exact moment they passed her, a chill running through Maebhe’s whole body at the almost contact. Maebhe almost covered her nose at the dead smell that followed the person like perfume.

She’d almost reached the stairs when a light flared to life at the other end of the hallway, near the alfar King’s cell. Maebhe stopped, frozen, blinking in the light at the creature now holding a glowing candle.

She reminded Maebhe inescapably of the dragon she’d seen in Lyryma. There was the same crimson glow under her skin, tearing apart her skin in a mere mockery of orinian birthmarks. Her eyes were the same as well – bright, hungry, ancient.

Maebhe gasped, and the orinian woman met her gaze.

Without waiting a moment longer, Maebhe turned and sprinted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She couldn’t tell if the woman was following – if she was, Maebhe couldn’t hear the click of her heels against the beating of her own heart. She raced back through the armory and nearly ran into Kieran and Drys in the hallway she’d first started down.

“Run!” she yelled, pushing past them both and not pausing to explain. They followed without question, running at her heels as they passed back into the foyer. Maebhe spared only a glance for the painting on the wall, for the red haired orinian who smiled so sweetly at the painter.

Then, they were in the courtyard again, passing through the overgrown garden, and Maebhe spared a glance over her shoulder. The woman reached the castle doorway just as they reached the gate beyond – instead of following, she stopped there, watching them with uncontained fury in her crimson eyes.

Maebhe, Kieran, and Drys didn’t stop running. They flew through old city streets, quickly reaching the spot where the wall had crumbled. It was steeper on this side – even Maebhe had to be careful when she climbed this way.

She couldn’t afford to be careful, this time. She started scrambling up the rocky wall only to slip, scraping her hands and sliding back down the few feet she’d managed to gain.

“Enough of this,” Drys said, scooping both Maebhe and Kieran up and flying them over.

On the other side, they all stopped to catch their breath. The wall provided a degree of safety – or an illusion of it, at least, and they felt they could take the time.

“Maebhe, who – what was that?” Kieran asked.

“I don’t know,” Maebhe gasped. “I don’t know. Kieran, the king is here. King Nochdvor. He’s in the city. That woman is keeping him captive.”

Kieran gaped at her. He shut his mouth after a moment and nodded, thoughtful. “I’ll go arrange a meeting with Whelan. He has to be told about this. Maebhe, you—you’re bleeding. Go back home, clean yourself up, calm down. It’ll be fine. We’ll get this figured out. Drys, will you take her back?”

Drys nodded, winding an arm around Maebhe’s waist and guiding her back to the Cairn house. Maebhe let herself be guided, too shaky and shaken to do anything else.

At the house, Drys drew a bath – Maebhe hid her face in their shoulder while the old copper tub filled with water. Like this, surrounded by familiar sounds and a now-familiar warmth, her breathing slowed, her mind eventually began to function again.

“Maebhe,” Drys said gently, after they leaned temporarily out of Maebhe’s reach to turn off the water. Their voice was uncharacteristically soft, their hands on Maebhe gentle. It felt nice. “The water’s ready.”

“Why does this shit always happen to me?” she asked.

Drys stayed silent – Maebhe figured they didn’t have an answer.

“My parents died in a carriage accident. I had to rescue my own brother from a Unity prison. I ran into a red dragon, was nearly killed by it, and then I found a missing alfar King – a missing alfar King that could spark a war—being guided by- by something not human! Something human who saw my face and almost certainly wants me dead, now! If Atiuh and the Guardians really exist, I wish they didn’t, if these are the cards they’ve dealt me.”

“Even if she wants you dead, I won’t let her near you,” Drys murmured into Maebhe’s hair. “And if Atiuh really did deal you these cards, as you say, perhaps it’s because you’re the only one strong enough to use them.”

Maebhe sighed and wound her arms around Drys’ waist. “What if I’m not, though?”

“You are.”

Maebhe laughed and took a step back, passing her hands over her face. “Tomorrow we’ll tell Whelan, and that’ll be the end of it. I swear, I’ll never go sticking my nose into trouble ever again.”

“Boring,” Drys said.

Maebhe laughed again. “Shut up.”

Feeling better, she studied the filled tub, dipped her hand in to test the water. She stripped out of her jacket, skirt, and blouse, leaving her in just an undershirt and her petticoat. Drys seemed rooted to the spot as she undressed, but at this, they shook themself, backing toward the door.

“I’ll leave you be, then,” they said, sounding like they wanted nothing more than to stay.

It made Maebhe smile. “Wait,” she said, and Drys waited as she stripped off the rest of her clothes, watching with a hungry gaze. Maebhe climbed into the tub, settling into the warm water and holding a hand out to Drys. “Join me? I could use some company, after all that.”


A/N: Quick heads up: there will NOT be a Fractured Magic chapter next week! Fractured Magic will return with a new chapter on May 27 – the next few chapters are going to be big ones, so I wanted to give myself some time to make sure they’re perfect for you all!

Chapter 29

Aldous Ranulf remembered when his sister had been sworn into Unity, nearly twenty-one years ago to the day. It was a grand ceremony, thousands of humans present to support their new representative. Their father hadn’t been dead a month, by that time.

Moira hadn’t been dead a week before Aldous replaced her, Unity anxious to fill the empty seat and try to find some normalcy in the chaos. They’d told Aldous by telegram. Telegram. Moira Ranulf found dead, stop. Come to Gallontea, stop. Need you to identify the body. Stop. Aldous had been in such a rush to get down there, he’d taken a train with general seating.

Years ago, he might’ve just chartered a dragon for a private flight, but of course, that sort of thing wasn’t allowed anymore. Draconic protesters put an end to that whole economy.

So he’d already been in a foul mood when he’d reached Gallontea, where he’d found out he wouldn’t get a ceremony like Moira’s. He wouldn’t dine with the Magistrates. He wouldn’t get a ball held in his honor. There was too much work to be done, they said. All Aldous got was a pat on the back, a stack of paperwork, and shallow apologies from people who didn’t know anything about Moira besides her name.

“We’re sorry that your sister’s mutilated body washed up on shore,” they said. “Why might someone have killed her? Gambling debts? An opium addiction? Some scandalous secret I can tell all of my friends?”

When they realized Aldous knew as much as they did, they sent him home with a cold, “You won’t be needed until next year’s conference. We’ll contact you.”

Aldous wished Gareth could take the job, but it wasn’t until he’d been sworn in that they’d even told him where Gareth had run off to. Gareth might be able to take over the position when he returned, but Aldous doubted he’d want to.

Aldous had managed to reserve a private box on the train back to Adondai, which brightened his mood somewhat. He could almost forgive his siblings for abandoning him – could for a time, at least. The train platform was empty when he stepped off, and his private carriage waited for him outside. He sank into its velvet cushions with a sigh.

“Stop at the theater before taking me home,” he called to the driver. Aldous pulled the curtains shut as they passed through Adondai’s unrulier neighborhoods. In Adondai, that meant most of them. When the carriage finally rolled to a halt, Aldous climbed out before the driver could help him. He breathed the city air – it was unpleasant, but it was his. In this city, everything was his.

“Wait here,” he called to the driver. “I won’t be gone a minute.”

The carriage sat in front of the Adondai Royal Theatre, a rectangular brick building with grand buttresses and wide windows. Aldous owned the building with another gentleman factory owner, and his monthly salary waited for him inside. Other Unity members lived on inheritances, but Gareth Ranulf Sr. had racked up massive gambling debts and reduced his children’s inheritances significantly.

Aldous wished he could dig the drunken sod up out of his grave to thank him, now. With his small inheritance, Aldous had bought two factories. From there, he’d build a textile empire – even people in places as far as Alfheim were wearing his linens. He owned six factories now, along with theatres and restaurants, and had shares in dozens of other promising enterprises.

The province effectively belonged to him.

Starting up the theatre steps, Aldous glanced down to straighten his suit, wrinkled from the stiff train ride. A pair of boots entered his periphery seconds before he ran into their owner. When he looked up, his angry words caught in his throat.

“Pardon me, madam,” he said, taking the hand of the woman who’d run into him and giving it a kiss. Her hand was soft in his. Her other hand clutched a number of papers to her chest. “How clumsy of me.”

“No, it was completely my fault. I’m sorry,” she said, then laughed a little. “I was trying to read and walk at the same time.”

“That’s nothing to apologize for – you have nothing to apologize for, except perhaps for being too lovely. I would ask your name, but it can’t be anything other than Ellaes. You could blind a man with your beauty, goddess.”

The woman stared at him a moment, then burst out laughing. “How many women do you use that line on, I wonder?”

“If I’ve said it before, I never believed it until you,” Aldous said. The woman shifted away, considering him, and he considered her in turn. She wore a red satin dress that showcased her curves and complimented her warm brown skin. Her lips and cheeks were tinted with a subtle rouge. A few strands of her curly hair fell into her eyes – captivating eyes framed by thick eyelashes and dark brows. After a moment, Aldous asked, “Do I know you from somewhere?”

She smirked, and Aldous was forever changed. “No, I don’t think so. Excuse me.”

With that, she continued down the steps. Aldous jogged after her. “I’m sure that I know you. We met in my dreams, perhaps?”

The woman stopped and stared at him. “Did you really just say that?”

“I can’t believe it, either,” Aldous said. He winced and held a hand to his heart. “In your presence, I’m reduced to cliches.”

The woman laughed and shook her head, curls bouncing. “You really are something. Go find other prey; I’m not buying it.”

“Wait!” Aldous called, again following when she continued down the steps. He changed his approach. “I’m sorry, truly. I find that false bravado is the easiest way to get over nerves, sometimes. Really, I do think I know you. You performed on Unity Island, didn’t you? For the Conference Festival?”

“Oh! Yes, that was me.”

“You were the most enchanting Edith I’ve ever seen. I mean it.”

The woman turned toward him, now reconsidering. “Thank you. Are you a Unity Representative?”

“I wasn’t then, but I am now. My sister died last week.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said with more earnestness than the people who’d actually known Moira.

“As am I. It’s been difficult,” Aldous said, with the earnestness of someone who had. “But let’s not dwell on tragedy. What brings a promising actress like you to my theatre? Looking for a job, I hope?”

Your theatre? Is it really?”

“Quite so.” He held out a hand. “Aldous Ranulf, at your service.”

The girl smiled warmly and took Aldous’ hand. Her handshake was firm, her fingers calloused. “Dinara Connell, at yours. And I was looking then, but I’m not now.”

Aldous beamed at her. “My hiring staff has excellent taste. No more travelling circuses for you, then? The Webhon Players, wasn’t it?”

Dinara’s smile fell at the word ‘circus.’ “Yes. I wanted something more permanent. You said your name is Ranulf? Are you related to Gareth?”

“He’s my brother!”

“He’s very kind. We met the night of my performance, actually.” Dinara put a hand on Aldous arm, which he covered with his own. “If you see him, tell him I’m sorry for his loss, as well.”

“Your condolences mean the world, Ms. Connell. I know my brother will appreciate them as much as I do. I’m afraid I must be going, but I’d very much like to see you again.”

Aldous kissed her hand again. Dinara laughed as she pulled it away, waving a goodbye to Aldous before continuing down the steps. He let her, this time.

“Well, you know where I work,” she called over her shoulder. “Come and see me sometime.”

Aldous watched her go. She truly was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She’d make a good wife, once her accent had been smoothed out and her profession had been fixed. She’d be his.

Just like everything else in this city.

Egil – IV

321 years ago

Year of unity 1549

Egil crept through the harsh underbrush, a knife in his hand. There was shouting up ahead, but he didn’t rush, didn’t risk revealing himself. Not yet. Though he hadn’t encountered him personally, he’d heard stories of creatures in this wood who used compassion as bait, mimicking the sounds of people in distress to lure you in deeper, to the heart of the wood.

It being some trick of Lyryma’s was the most plausible explanation for the racket. The only ones who venture this deep into the forest are those already privy to its secrets, and they’d know better than to scream.

Egil didn’t know what he’d expected to see when he finally reached the source of the noise – some strange wispy monster, maybe, or nothing at all – but four young alfar with pristine sabres and fine clothing fighting off an angry selcla wasn’t it. It only took a few seconds of Egil watching their sword forms to know they wouldn’t win this fight alone.

Not all of them held sabres, though– the one at the back, furthest from the selcla, instead tried desperately to hold the reins of their spooked horses. Seeing this, Egil crept around the edge of their small clearing over to him, ripping up a thick fern branch as he went.

“Give me your tinderbox,” he said to the alfar in an urgent whisper.

The alfar jumped at his sudden appearance and turned wide, icy-blue eyes on him. “What?”

“A tinderbox. You have one somewhere among the saddlebags, don’t you? Give it to me.”

“Who even are you?”

“Doesn’t matter. Just trust me.”

The alfar stared at Egil a moment longer, then nodded and thrust the reins into Egil’s hands. He turned to a dun horse decked in Alfheim trappings and rested a hand on its neck, cooing at it under his breath while searching its saddlebags for the tinderbox.

Finding his prize, he passed it to Egil and took back the reins. With a few hasty strikes, Roman set the fern branch ablaze.

Across the clearing, the selcla stood on its hind legs so that it towered over the three alfar at nearly twice their height. It swiped at one with a massive paw, striking him and sending him flying into a nearby tree trunk with a thud. Before it could strike again, Roman ran into the fray, waving the flaming branch at the selcla. It fell back immediately, dropping onto four legs again and taking several steps wary back.

“Shoo,” Egil urged, waving the branch at it again. It was burning quickly; he could already feel the heat on his hand. Fortunately, the trick had worked. With an irritated grunt, the selcla turned and lumbered back into the brush.

Egil dropped the branch and stomped out the fire while the alfar crowded around him.

“That was brilliant!” one said.

“How did you know that would work?” another asked.

Egil stepped away before they could fully encircle him, eyeing them all warily. They barely seemed to notice his hesitation, too caught up in their own excitement and the rush of adrenaline that follows a near-death experience. Guessing an alfar’s age always posed a challenge, but based on their manner and dress, Egil knew these were young.

“What are you doing here?” he asked them. “This forest is dangerous.”

“Yes, so we were told,” one of the boys sighed. He was taller than the others. Older, too, with less baby fat and a trace of blond stubble along his jaw. “I didn’t know that meant giant bears that attack for no reason whatsoever!”

“Dangerous means dangerous. Leave before you get hurt.”

“We can’t,” said another, the one who’d been thrown into a tree. He rubbed at his lower back but otherwise appeared uninjured. “Our friends are waiting for us at the edge of the wood. They dared us to keep going until one of us found an oanai. We can’t turn back now.”

“Then you’ll die and you’ll bring shame on your families,” Egil said. He met the fourth alfar’s gaze, the one who’d been watching. “The blood of Alfheim royalty will be on your hands.”

The boys all stilled. Surprise flickered across the face of the fourth alfar, and he left the horses— calmed, now that the threat was gone— tethered to a tree in order to join them. “How did you know?” he asked.

“The crest on your saddlebags.”

“Clever. Who are you?” the tall one asked.

Egil hesitated. This would be his first time introducing himself since escaping Unity. The people of Home had already known him as Egil, accepted him as Egil, but this was a chance to be someone else, to rid himself of the title Egil, Unity’s servant. Egil was gone, but Amaimon was, too— dead and buried long ago by Unity.

“Call me Roman,” he said. Then, regretfully dropping his mother’s surname— it was how Unity knew him— he added, “Roman Hallisey.”

“Well,” the tall alfar said, reaching out to lay a hand on Roman’s shoulder in a gesture Roman shied away from. “It’s truly a pleasure, Mr. Hallisey. I’m Helge Evanson. This is Kjell and Oskar, and the royal you so quickly identified is Leandros Nochdvor, the King’s grandson.”

Roman eyed the royal. He looked like his uncle— golden hair, pale blue eyes, and light, unmarred skin. But Leandros was younger, leaner, and far more awkward. The biggest difference, though played openly across his face— his emotions. Clearly, this alfar hadn’t yet mastered the old Alfheim tradition: keep your true feelings hidden.

He smiled at Roman, soft and kind. “Join us for a meal. Consider it our thanks to you for saving our lives.”

“I dare say we could’ve fought it,” Kjell said.

“What, like you were fighting it when it sent you flying?” Oskar asked.

“It does seem like you’re our good luck token, Mr. Hallisey,” Helge said. “Please, do sit. I’d love to hear what you’re doing in Lyryma, if it’s as dangerous as you say. Oskar, get a fire started, would you?”

As much as Roman didn’t want to stay, he couldn’t in good conscience leave these boys alone. They’d been lucky so far, but luck was a fickle thing in the deadly depths of Lyryma, and Roman had enough blood and guilt staining his soul already. While he was still trying to decide, he found himself being dragged down to sit beside Helge at a small but growing fire.

Kjell broke a loaf of break and passed it around the circle while Helge offered Roman fruit native to Alfheim. Roman took one of the small berries and considered it— these alfar must’ve been early into their journey, if their fruit was still so fresh. They’d likely come here directly from Alfheim.

“Is a dare really worth your lives?” Roman asked. His eyes met Leandros’ blue ones when he looked up, and the royal looked away. Roman almost smiled at the obviousness of his unease. If this had been some mission for Unity— pull information from the alfar king’s grandson— he’d have been disappointed by the lack of challenge.

“Yes,” Oskar said easily.

“We’re students at the Academy, you see— that’s the best school in Alfheim— and we’re about to enter our final year,” Helge explained. “It’s tradition that every year, when the senior class graduates, they give the rising class a dare that they must complete. Ours is to bring back some proof that we met an oanai in Lyryma. So we must do this.”

Roman raised an eyebrow.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Helge said. “If we turn back now, we’ll be the first class in over fifty years to fail. Our fathers, our fathers’ fathers, they all completed their own dares. We’d be a disgrace.”

Roman looked at Leandros. “What about you? You’re quiet. Do you disagree?”

Kjell groaned.

“I think it would be wise to cede defeat,” Leandros said, shooting Kjell a glare. “Which is what I’ve been saying all day.”

“You were just as excited for this as the rest of us!”

“That was before we almost got mauled by a giant bear!” Leandros countered. “Besides, I was excited to leave Alfheim, not to enter a forest where our people are rightly unwelcome.”

“It was a selcla, technically,” Roman said. “Same genus, different species.”

The alfar all shot him surprised looks at that, not expecting a strange, feral human they found in Lyryma to know the difference between a genus and a species.

Roman cleared his throat. “There are worse creatures here, the deeper you go. Which is why I advise that you turn back.”

“If you know Lyryma so well, why don’t you help us? Do you know where we can find the oanai?” Oskar asked.

This sparked Kjell and Helge’s excitement, and soon Roman had three eager alfar bearing down on him. He pushed himself to his feet, stepping swiftly away from them all, closer to the protection of the wood. “If I help you find an oanai, do you promise to leave the forest immediately after?”

“Of course,” Helge agreed. “We don’t want to be here, believe it or not. I have silks and a warm bed waiting for me in Alfheim, and I don’t have to dine on berries and bread.”

“Fine,” Roman said. “I’ll take Nochdvor, but the rest of you must stay here.”

Leandros’ mouth fell open in surprise.

The others climbed to their feet in an instant, swarming Roman. Oskar, Kjell, and Helge spoke over each other, each trying to complain louder than the others.

Kjell, “Why him?”

Oskar, “Why not take all of us?”

Helge, “Just who do you think you are?”

“Your people have made an enemy of the oanai for centuries; you think I’d just march you straight to Home? You’re just arrogant, unthinking children. You give no thought to the damage you could do,” Roman spat. “Since Mr. Nochdvor is clearly the only one among you with common sense, he’s the only one I’ll take.”

Helge spluttered. Soft hands, fine clothes, and loud, arrogant confidence— he’d clearly never been spoken to this way in his life.

“We’ll be back in a few hours. If you’re going to sleep, keep a watch. Don’t leave this clearing and always keep that fire lit. Most predators in the forest fear fire. It should keep you safe until we get back,” Roman said, before Helge could recover. To Leandros, he added, “We continue on foot. Keep behind me and follow my orders.”

Leandros shouldered a single, small bag and followed Roman deeper into the wood. As the glow from the fire behind them dimmed, soon to be swallowed completely by the lush foliage, dark in the night, he tried to spark up a conversation.

“How do you know so much about Lyryma?” he asked. When Egil looked back at him, the alfar’s expression was clear, composed. He’d shown so much apprehension earlier, but where was that fear now?

“I live here.”

“Is that so? Have you been here long?”

“Very long.”

There came a pause, Leandros waiting for Roman to expand on his statement. When he didn’t, Leandros said, “Your accent is Troasian, isn’t it? That’s a very long way from here.”

“It is.”

Leandros sighed. “You’re not one for talking, are you? That’s fine, I suppose.” He walked beside Roman now, looking all around him like he couldn’t take enough of it in. “Lyryma is actually quite lovely when there are no monsters attacking you.”

“It is,” Roman agreed. He remembered the first time he’d seen the forest. He’d been weary and injured, stumbling in after a long chase out of Gallontea, his heart breaking for Bellona, the girl he’d had to leave behind. Things had changed so much since then. He’d known peace.

Leandros remained silent the rest of the way. That silence echoed around and between them. Normally, Egil was uneasy travelling the forest at night, but he found it peaceful with a companion, even a stranger he’d only known a few hours.

The forest responded to their peace, their silence, so that they were able to hear the music of Home long before they reached the city. It drifted through the trees toward them, compelling them onward, and before long the ground dropped out beneath them, the city sprawling below. Night had fallen, so lanterns had been lit all throughout Home— the majority of them surrounded Central Field, where figures swayed and danced to Home’s strange music.

“This is Home?” Leandros asked, breathless. He dropped to his knees at the very edge of the hill, staring down at the city with wide eyes and an open mouth. “From the stories they tell in Alfheim, I was expecting…”

“Not this,” Roman guessed.

“Not this,” Leandros agreed. “This is incredible. It puts Alfheim to shame.”

“You’d be surprised at how many stories your people tell about Home are untrue,” Roman said, crossing his arms. He watched Leandros out of the corner of his eye— he couldn’t remember ever meeting an alfar so unapologetically enthusiastic about anything, let alone another city, another culture.

“I don’t doubt that.”

Roman pointed at Central Field. “There are your oanai. You said you needed proof?”

“Just some token,” Leandros said with a shrug. “Can we get closer?”

“I don’t know if that’s appropriate. It’s not for me to invite you into the city.”

Leandros nodded. “I understand. Then shall I…wait here while you get the token?”

“Egil!” a deep voice called, turning both Leandros and Roman’s heads. Leandros gasped when he saw his first oanai – it was Mani, a favored candidate for quadrant chieftan. She was also the youngest candidate, and the one who had first found Egil when he came stumbling into Lyryma with Unity guards on his heels.

She approached from the grand staircase, tilting her head quizzically as she took in the person beside Roman. “You’ve been a guest here for so long, Egil, but you’ve never brought a friend before.”

“He’s not—,” Roman began.

“But he’s someone you trusted to bring here?” Mani asked.

“Yes,” Roman admitted.

“Then welcome to Home,” Mani told Leandros. “You’ve made it just in time for a party.”

“A party?” Leandros asked.

“He’s not staying,” Roman said. “Mani, can we borrow a whisker?”

Mani blinked at the unusual request. “A whisker?”

“Yes, one of your whiskers. Leandros needs it for something,” Roman said.

Mani made a low, thoughtful noise. “I will give your friend a whisker if you both come to our party. I’ve noticed how you always avoid them, Egil. Our good neighbors will be very happy to see you.”

Happy may be a strong word.” Roman sighed. “Fine. But we can’t stay long.”

They followed Mani down the Grand Staircase, toward the constant stream of music coming from Center Field. The minute they made the clearing, glasses of shimmering wine were thrust into their hands. A faerie with elegant butterfly wings danced around Roman, playing with his hair before whisking Leandros away for a dance.

As a newcomer, someone fresh and exciting, Leandros quickly amassed an entourage of curious fae. Roman watched him for a while— he was all youthful excitement and awkward limbs compared to the grace of the fae, but he was something solid and true in a sea of the surreal and ethereal. Roman found him strangely magnetic.

With that thought, he drained his glass, then cast one last look at Leandros before setting off in search of another. He should have realized then how hard it was to leave a fae party once you’d begun to let yourself enjoy it.

Roman and Leandros found each other again nearly an hour later, when they almost collided in the middle of a dance. Roman caught himself only to stumble into him a moment later. He laughed, the world tipping dangerously around him.

A deceptively strong arm wrapped around his waist, keeping him steady. “Hello again,” Leandros said, raising his voice to be heard over the laughter and music.

“Hi,” Roman said breathlessly. “We should really be getting back to your friends.”

“They’re not my friends,” Leandros said. He tugged Roman away from the party, his amused grin never leaving his face. “And I think we should both sit a while before we try to go anywhere.”

Roman shrugged and dropped down into the grass. “That’s fine. As long as they keep the fire going, they won’t die.”

Leandros laughed. It was a sound that belonged here. If magic existed, Roman always thought, he would find it in Lyryma. He was right, in a way— he found it in that laugh.

“You’re like a different person, drunk,” Leandros observed as he settled beside Roman in the grass.

Roman scoffed. “This is hardly me drunk. It’s me…” Inhibited just enough to be able to breathe, to emerge from the shell of a man who was broken and remade only to be broken again. Just enough to forget the torture, the manipulation, and worst of all, the terrible things he’d done of his own will. “Relaxed,” he finished.

“Of course. My apologies.”

Roman ignored the faint humor in the alfar’s voice. “When does your term start?” he asked.

“Pardon?”

“Kjell— or was it Oskar— one of them said you’re students at the Academy. A new term starts soon, right?”

“Not until fall,” Leandros said.

Roman nodded and twirled a lock of hair around his finger. It was getting long, nearly down to his waist when he didn’t tie it up. The passage of time was indistinct in Home— seasons meant nothing, weeks blended into months, into years. And through it all, Roman didn’t age. He used his hair as a time marker of sorts— soon, it would be time to cut it all off and begin the cycle again.

There was no counting the cycles since he’d attended the Academy, too many were they. He doubted anyone he knew still taught there. He tried to think of the youngest professor who’d been teaching when he was enrolled. “Is, ah…Elgar Silge still teaching there?”

Leandros had been watching the party, his foot tapping along to the beat of the music, but at this, he turned the full force of his attention on Roman. “No, he’s been dead many years.”

“Ah,” Roman said. “Shame.”

“His daughter is the headmaster, now.”

Roman sat upright at that. “Asta?”

“You know her?”

“We were friends when I– I used to attend the Academy,” Roman confessed without quite meaning to.

With the expressiveness Roman had come to expect from him, Leandros made a surprised noise, still watching Roman with an intensity that made Roman look away. “A human from Troas who attended the Academy and lied about his own name, now living in Lyryma with the oanai. What a mystery you are.”

“I didn’t lie,” Roman said. He was getting the feeling that he’d had far more to drink than Leandros had. A mistake. “My name is Amaimon Roman Rosario Hallisey. I go by Roman.”

“The oanai from earlier called you Egil.”

“That’s not my– that’s something else. Don’t ever call me that.”

Leandros held his hands up in apology. “I won’t. I’m sorry for pushing. I like Roman. It’s a good name.”

“Thanks,” Roman said. Warning bells chimed in the back of his head. Instinct told him Leandros wouldn’t abuse the information, but it was still more than Roman had willingly given anyone in— well, all his life.

“What did you study at the Academy?” Leandros asked.

“Chemistry. I never did get to graduate, though. I had to drop out before my final year.” He almost smiled. “Never got to participate in any dares.”

A furrow appeared between Leandros’ brows. “What happened?”

Roman shrugged. “My father died. I didn’t have the money or means to continue.”

“You could always go back,” Leandros slurred, the first sign of his own intoxication he’d shown all night. “You could finish with the new term. We could be classmates.”

Roman laughed, short and bitter. “I don’t know if that’s possible.”

“Think about it,” Leandros said. He pushed himself to his feet and held a hand out to Roman, who took it with little hesitation. “In the meantime, come and dance with me, just one song. Then we can find that oanai, get her whisker, and I can get out of this forest.”


Six Months Later

The schoolroom was sticky and humid, filled with chattering voices and blank space– walls, desks, chalkboards. For the best Alfheim had to offer, the Academy certainly left something to be desired. But it was space away from his family and the professors were competent, so Leandros knew he shouldn’t complain.

He sat surrounded by Helge, Oskar, Kjell, and several classmates who hadn’t been let in on their fateful summer dare. Helge was telling some story about an Evanson family hunting trip to Creae Valley, and Leandros had long since tuned out. He was the first to notice, then, when someone familiar entered the room behind their professor.

A lean figure with dark skin, dark eyes, and long, long dark hair pulled back and up off his neck, Roman stood out among the broad-shouldered, fair-haired citizens of Alfheim. More importantly, he lacked the features that marked alfar blood –pointed ears, sharp angles, long proportions. As in Lyryma, he wore an old Troasian style – a flowing white tunic partially unbuttoned, a red sash around his waist, a homespun ascot around his neck.

Almost immediately, he found Leandros’ gaze. Leandros took a moment to recover from his surprise, but then he smiled at Roman, and Roman nodded back at him.

“What is he doing here?” Helge asked, finally noticing Roman as well.

“Mr. Evanson,” the professor scolded, settling his things on the desk at the front of the room. “This is your new classmate, Roman Hallisey. He is a personal friend of the Headmaster, so I hope you all welcome him and show him how hospitable we can be at the Academy.”

“This is some kind of joke, right?” Helge asked, dropping the Unity-mandated Ellesian for eld alfar, a language spoken only among old Alfheim families. “He’s some filthy peasant who lives in the woods among nympherai. Why in all of Calaidia would the Headmaster have anything to do with him?”

“Shut up, Helge,” Leandros snapped, also in alfar. He turned to face Roman, who’d settled on a stool at the high table behind him and switched back to Ellesian. “Glad you could make it.”

“Gladr lig at vara hi,” Roman replied in crisp, flawless eld alfar. Glad to be here.

Helge nearly fell off his stool.

As they settled into the term, Leandros made multiple attempts to befriend Roman Hallisey. He tried to invite Roman out with the rest of the students, tried to strike up conversations with him between classes, and once, when he was particularly desperate, tried following Roman to the market so he could later “pretend” to run into him. The latter attempt had been an utter failure. Either intentionally or unintentionally, Roman had disappeared from Leandros’ sight after just one block.

Leandros was used to people who hid their emotions, but it was different with Roman. Sometimes, Leandros wondered if Roman even had emotions, then he’d catch a flicker of life – the way he’d smile to himself when the professor got his facts mixed up, the spark of anger that flickered to life in his eyes when the other students were being particularly ignorant. It would remind Leandros of that night in Home, when Roman smiled, laughed, played with his hair and danced. He’d remember the loneliness he saw in Roman when Roman had let his guard down, and then he tried harder.

Leandros knew that loneliness. It matched his own.

His chance to finally get close to Roman came in the form of a group project. Leandros had been in the classroom early to speak to the professor, make sure that when the team assignments were read out that he and Roman would be paired together. Roman hadn’t questioned it out loud, but he’d given Leandros a curious, appraising look as they’d agreed to meet in Roman’s flat their next free day to work.

When the day came, Leandros was inexplicably nervous. Roman’s flat was in a corner of Alfheim he’d never been in, and the building itself was smaller, colder, dingier than any building he’d ever seen. He hadn’t even known places like this existed in Alfheim. He climbed rickety steps and planned what he might say to Roman, what they might talk about.

Roman’s rooms were simple and pleasant, even if there were only two of them: the main room and the kitchen. Leandros tried not to stare too much at Roman’s bed as they both settled on the ground to spread out their papers and get to work.

They fell into a rhythm with their work quickly– Leandros didn’t even need to use his planned conversation starters. He was pleased to find they worked will together. He had an eye for the big picture, and Roman for details. Roman’s intense focus rivaled his own– so much so that they worked straight through lunchtime without noticing.

“I think we’ve earned ourselves a break,” Leandros said eventually, stretching with his arms over his head, his back cracking once, twice with the movement.

“Mm,” Roman hums, still staring down at their work with a frown.

“Roman,” Leandros said, when Roman didn’t move. “A break. This project certainly isn’t worth overworking yourself over.”

“You’re right,” Roman said, finally putting down the paper in his hand. “But what, exactly, did you think we’d do during this ‘break’ instead?”

Leandros frowned. “Talk, I hope? I was curious to know how you’ve been readjusting to Alfheim.”

Roman only raised an eyebrow.

Leandros tried again. “Do…you miss Lyryma?”

“Sometimes,” Roman said. He looked up at Leandros, then, and Leandros found himself trapped by that gaze. “I know you asked the professor to make us partners.”

Leandros felt his mouth fall open. “Oh, I– no, I only– that is, I thought–,”

While he stammered out an excuse, Roman sat up and shifted closer. Then, he straddled Leandros’ hips, his warm weight settling in the alfar’s lap. Leandros’ mind stuttered to a stop. Before it could start up again, Roman kissed him, wound an arm around his shoulders and sighed a contented him against Leandros’ lips when Leandros kissed back. Without thinking, Leandros wound an arm around Roman’s waist and hauled him closer, making him gasp.

The sound was enough to pull Leandros back to his senses. He pushed Roman off, ignoring his surprised expression, and scooted back until his shoulders hit the edge of the bed. He knew his face was bright red, could feel the warmth rushing to his cheeks.

“What,” he gasped. “What are you doing?”

Roman only frowned. “It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Why you’ve been so nice to me?”

“What? No!”

Roman’s frown only deepened.

“I want to be friends with you, Roman.”

Roman stared at him. “Friends,” he repeated. “Do you really mean that?”

“Of course I do,” Leandros said, wondering– not for the first time– what happened to Roman to make him like this. He knew what he’d seen in Home; he knew Roman wasn’t naturally cold.

Roman ran a hand through his hair, accidentally pulling some of the shorter pieces free of its tie. “I don’t…I mean, it’s been a while since I– since I’ve had friends.”

“I can tell,” Leandros said, managing a small smile. “I mean, me too. Helge and them, they don’t count. They only tolerate me because of my status. And besides, they’re awful.”

Roman nodded. “They really are awful.”

Another silence fell between them, both watching the other as if they might try something else world-shattering. Finally, Roman said, “I suppose we can try it.”

“It?”

“Friendship.”

Leandros couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of him– whether at his own embarrassment or at Roman’s, he wasn’t sure. Roman smiled, warm and wide, and Leandros felt his loneliness begin to drain away. At the same time, he wondered if friendship would be enough.


A/N: How was that for an interlude? I’m sure everyone was dying to know just how Roman and Leandros became friends 🙂

I’ll be posting art from today’s chapter, but only on the Fractured Magic discord, which anyone is welcome to join!

Chapter 28

A/N: Warning in this chapter for animal (large predator) death


The small rescue team pressed into the darkened wood, the sounds of Home and its still-ringing alarm bells soon being swallowed by the night. Lyryma itself was far from silent – crickets chirped amidst the rustle of wind in the high trees and the scuttling of small animals. In the distance, if they listened closely, they could hear more ominous sounds – the crack of branches crushed beneath the weight of something heavy, a low whistling growl caused by something decidedly inhuman.

“This is a bad idea,” Roman told the rest of the group, conversationally. “There’s a reason they say you shouldn’t travel this forest at night.”

“And what do you propose we do?” Evelyne asked, with a sneer thrown over her shoulder. “Head back to Home and ask us if they’ll spare a room for the night?”

“No, find a place to wait out the night and hope nothing finds us before the sun rises,” Roman answered.

“It doesn’t seem so bad,” Ivor said.

“Have you ever been here before today?” Roman asked.

“No.”

“Then stop talking and listen to someone who used to live here?”

This time, it was Thea who looked over her shoulder at Roman, her eyes bright in the faint moonlight shining down through the trees. “You used to live here? Why?” she asked. “I mean, why not…I don’t know, literally anywhere else?”

“Lyryma is a good place to hide,” Roman answered, simply.

As they traveled west, guided only by an old compass Ivor had brought with him, Roman felt a tightness in his chest, a string tied to his ribcage tugging him back, deeper into the forest. It made him almost sick with the force of its pull, but the others didn’t seem to notice, walking far ahead of him and chatting as they went.

To Roman, it felt as if the forest watched his every move. It was the same twisted, niggling presence that tormented him in his dreams, or when his darkness took over. He tried to shake the feeling, but he couldn’t.

“It must be poisonous,” he heard Eftychia say. It pulled him from his thoughts, and he looked up to see a large, insect-like creature flying above him on wings like a dragonfly’s. But it was shaped more like a centipede, with just as many legs, and it moved through the air like a snake through water. “Just look at it’s colors!”

“Poisonous?” Thea squeaked, trying to keep as much distance between the insect and herself as possible, hiding behind Leandros to do so.

“It’s only poisonous if you eat it, Thea,” Roman said. “Otherwise, it’s harmless. Do you plan on eating it?”

“As if!” Thea said. She watched the insect go and shuddered. “I hate bugs.”

“We’ll run into more before we’re out of here,” Evelyne said.

They came across a fallen tree, next, the bulk of its trunk too wide to easily climb over. Instead, they had to break course to move around it, climbing up and over gnarled roots draped with moss and ivy. Its wood had begun to rot, one of the roots creaking a warning under Thea’s weight.

Leandros, who’d already made his way back to solid ground, helped her down. And once they were all past the unexpected obstruction, they paused long enough to catch their breaths — and to hear the faint gurgle of a stream running over rocks.

They came upon the stream – bigger and deeper than expected – before long, finding that it cut directly across their path.

“I don’t remember this from the way in,” Ivor said, sharing a look with Evelyne.

“That’s because it veers west just north of here,” Roman said. “You probably managed to go around it. If any oanai are following us, they’ll be expecting us to go around, too. I say we just cut through.”

He wandered upstream to where the bank was at its narrowest and the water its shallowest, jumping from rock to rock where he could and wading through warm waters where he couldn’t. Seeing that the water never got higher than Roman’s knees, the others reluctantly followed, Thea sighing and holding her skirts up as she did.

The only one who didn’t follow was Evelyne. She unclipped her sword and pistol from her belt and tossed them to Ivor before wading directly into the water downstream, where it was deep enough to reach her chest.

“Atuos be blessed, for this,” she said, her gentle voice drifting to them over the stream’s bubbling like a distant song. “If I had to walk with that mud caked all over me for five more steps, I would have killed something.”

She bent to rinse her long hair in the water, its bright red appearing almost black in the darkness. Roman settled on the bank to wait for her to finish, Leandros sitting beside him.

“I might have to join her,” Eresh said. “The mud is starting to dry and it itches.”

Before he could take a single step back toward the stream, though, Roman caught him by the leg of his trousers and stopped him. “Don’t move. Don’t even speak,” he said. Raising his voice to be heard over the stream, he called, “Evelyne, get down!”

To her credit, Evelyne did immediately, sinking into the water until only her eyes and nose were visible.

“They’re attracted to sound and movement. Don’t let them touch you,” Roman said.

Before anyone could ask what he meant, the first of “them” appeared. They would have looked like the drifting seeds of a scattered dandelion, had they not been the size of a human hand and glowing faintly. There were only a few, to start, but they kept coming and kept coming until there were dozens of them floating through the air, illuminating the forest around them.

Slowly, curiously, Ivor reached up toward one. He touched it with just the tip of his littlest finger – a spark flared, and Ivor gasped in pain, his arm falling to his side like a dead weight. Drawn by the sound and the movement, the strange drifting spores changed course, floating directly toward Ivor – and by proxy, the rest of the group seated on the beach.

Evelyne shut her eyes. The rest of the group tensed, expecting the spores to collide with them, but then a low whistle picked up. It was Eresh, whistling lowly, a strange vibrato running an undercurrent through the tune.

Somehow, instead of being drawn to it, the spores changed course and drifted away, moving faster than before. Eresh continued whistling until the spores were far upstream, the rest of the group holding their breath in anticipation.

“How did you do that?” Roman asked, once they were gone entirely.

“A dryad’s song,” Eresh said. “We have some control over nature – you know, simple things like singing a plant to bloom. I thought that if those things were plant based, I might be able to move them.”

“I’m glad you were,” Roman said, pushing to his feet. “I was stuck for hours by a pollen storm like that, once.”

“And you pushed this one toward Home, Eresh!” Eftychia said, patting Eresh’s mud-caked shoulder. “Good job! If anyone really was after us, they’ll have some trouble following, now!”

“What about my arm?” Ivor asked. He tried moving it, but it still hung limply at his side.

“I told you not to let them touch you,” Roman snapped. “I wouldn’t have said that for nothing.”

Ivor sighed. “Yes, yes, I’ll be sure to listen, next time. But my arm – is it stuck like this?”

“It’ll wear off in a few hours.”

Ivor groaned.

Evelyne joined them, then, squeezing the excess water out of her hair and shirt as she went. “If we run into one more ridiculous thing in this Atiuh-damned forest,” she muttered, snatching her sword and pistol from Ivor’s good hand, “I’m going to be very upset.”

Roman grinned, the expression frightening in the darkness. “Prepare to be upset, then.”

It wasn’t until they were nearly at the edge of the wood that they ran into the next ridiculous thing. It started in the form of one distant howl, then two – coming from behind, from the treks of forest they’d already left behind. Roman stilled to listen, then uttered one word: “Run!

At this point, knowing better than to question Roman’s knowledge of Lyryma, the rest of the team didn’t hesitate to obey.They rushed through the underbrush, Ivor and Thea taking the lead and Roman and Evelyne bringing up the rear.

“Do you have extra weapons?” Roman asked Evelyne as they ran. “Leandros and I had to give ours up.”

Evelyne leaped over a tree root – they were getting smaller the closer the team came to Lyryma’s border. “None for you,” she eventually snapped.

“Evelyne!”

Evelyne shot him a look, half-annoyed and half-exasperated. “Ask Ivor. Leandros can use my pistol, but I need my sword.”

Roman cupped his hands over his mouth and called, “Ivor!” just as another howl came from behind, much closer this time. Cursing under his breath, Roman ground to a stop. “We’re not going to outrun them! We’ll have to fight!”

Beside Roman. Evelyne stopped as well, tossing her pistol case to Leandros even as she drew her sword. Leandros cast his eyes about the small clearing they’d stopped in, spotting a tangle of roots nearby, grown to twist up and over each other. That left a small burrow beneath the oldest roots and the ground.

“Thea, Eresh, go hide in the roots, there. Don’t come out until we give the word,” Leandros called.

Thea nodded, grabbed Eresh’s hand, and dragged him toward the roots. The two of them had to crawl on their elbows to fit into the burrow, but it kept them safely out of the way.

“Ivor,” Roman ordered, his call clashing with a nearby howl. “Give me a sword.”

“I need them both,” Ivor said.

“You only have one working arm! What are you doing trying to fight, anyway? You should be with Thea and Eresh!”

Around them, the howling had stopped. The team shared wary looks, and Ivor hurriedly passed one of the swords strapped to his back to Roman. “You can have one,” he said, “But I’m more than capable of fighting one-handed. Don’t worry about me.”

“I wasn’t about to,” Roman said, turning to face the forest with the rest of the team. They stood back to back in a tight circle, watching dark shapes and golden eyes move in the forest around them.

A low growl came from his left, and then there came a flash of movement in the corner of Roman’s vision as something came rocketing toward him, dashing past him on the right. Evelyne sliced at it with her sword, but it swept out of the way and barreled toward her, knocking her to the ground.

“Watch out for the fangs!” Roman called. “They’re poisonous!”

Roman couldn’t waste any more worry on her, though, because another dark shape was prowling out of the forest, this one circling him slowly, waiting for an opening. In the darkness, Roman could make out a cat-like form with far too many limbs, nearly the size of a pony. Roman held his sword ready, daring it to charge.

With Eftychia’s help, Evelyne managed to throw the first creature off her, sending it flying toward the second. Evelyne climbed slowly to her feet, holding her arm close as if she’d injured it. Meanwhile, a third and fourth cat entered the clearing.

“I’ve never seen so many of them in one place,” Roman breathed. “And definitely never so close to the forest’s edge.”

The clearing erupted into motion as the first cat pounced. Eftychia just barely managed to dodge its claws, and was far too slow with her own attack – the cat twisted around her and nipped at Ivor instead, catching and tearing his trousers. Behind Roman, Leandros readied Evelyne’s pistol and fired a shot, narrowly missing the cat attacking Ivor. It got the creature to back off, at least, the other cats widening their circle.

“Damn,” Leandros muttered. “I thought the sound might make them run.”

“How are they so fast?” Eftychia asked.

Across the clearing, someone screamed, and Roman looked over to see a fifth cat standing on the roots Thea and Eresh were hiding under, clawing at the wood. Evelyne took a step toward it, but Roman grabbed her wrist to stop her. “Don’t break the circle! Leandros?”

“I’ve got it,” Leandros said, already aiming the gun. This time, his shot found its mark, striking the creature and making it fall from its perch on the tree roots.

Another cat snarled, and then three of them lunged at once.

They weren’t going to win this fight. Roman knew it. The shaari were the fiercest predators in all of Lyryma; just one would be hard to beat, especially tired and injured as they all were, and they were facing four.

The sounds of fighting continued on behind him, but his focus was on the cat ahead. It had stopped several feet away and was watching him with its large, luminous eyes, its pupils wide in the darkness. There came a pained grunt behind him, the sound definitely coming from Leandros.

Roman resisted the urge to turn and look. But he felt a twinge, a light tug at his heart, and then tension behind his eyes.

It was happening again. He was losing control.

He blinked, and his vision sharpened – the way it always did when his eyes changed. He could make out the individual fur on the cat’s coat, could see through the shadows as if it were broad daylight.

Then, something unexpected happened. The cat in front of him hissed at him, its ears flattening to its head and its shoulders hunching to make it look smaller. It took several cautious steps away from Roman, made a soft, placating chuffing noise, then turned and ran back into the forest, the other cats following with their tails between their legs.

“What the fuck?” Ivor asked, breathless.

Roman blinked, his vision swiftly returning to normal. Did that happen because of…him? He turned to look at the rest of the group, finding them all in various states of disarray. Ivor’s clothing was torn, Evelyne had scratches all down her arms, and Leandros was on the ground, looking not entirely sure how he got there.

“Is everyone alright?” Roman asked.

Leandros nodded, Evelyne shrugged. Eftychia hurried over to check her injuries. Thea and Eresh shuffled their way back out of the burrow.

“It didn’t bite you, did it?” Roman asked.

“No,” Evelyne said. “Just scratched.”

“Why did they run?” Leandros asked, climbing to his feet.

“Who knows!” Roman said, hoping he didn’t sound too frantic. “Let’s just get moving before they come back.”

As the team moved on, Roman couldn’t help but glance back at the clearing. The shaari only would have ventured out this far if they were hungry, but then that begged the question: what happened to their food source?

Not long after that, they finally reached the edge of Lyryma and emerged onto an empty road. Evelyne nodded down the road, “Let’s go just a little further. I figured we wanted to get as far from Home as possible, so I told the team to move on without us. We’ll just have to hurry to catch up.”

With that, she started down the tight-packed path, not waiting for the others to follow. Thea smiled at Roman and Leandros, then jogged after Evelyne until they were walking side by side.

“More walking,” Ivor grumbled. “At least I’m starting to get feeling back in my arm.”

They all followed after Evelyne and Thea, all too tired to speak – all except Eftychia, who tapped a finger to her lips and asked, “Mr. Hallisey, what were those creatures called?”

Roman blinked. “Shaari. Why?”

“That’ll be your new nickname!” Eftychia chirped. “Shaari.”

“My what?” Roman stopped walking.

Leandros laughed, a soft, genuine sound, and Roman found he didn’t even need an explanation.


Chapter 27

A/N: Warning for some minor violence in this chapter


“You are so heavy,” Roman whined.

“Shut up, Roman. I almost have it.”

Roman tried to keep quiet, but Leandros’ boots dug into his shoulders every time the alfar shifted, and Roman couldn’t keep this up without some sort of distraction. “I should have been on top. You used to be such a twig. What happened?”

“People age when you don’t see them in sixty years,” Leandros said. “Though I suppose you’re the singular exception to that.”

Roman glanced down at himself and frowned. Above him, Leandros grabbed for the wall.

“Stop moving,” he hissed. “I need just a few more inches, Roman. I’m sorry about this.”

“About wh-,” Roman started, then one of Leandros’ boots shifted and stepped onto his head. “Ow!”

All at once, Leandros’ weight disappeared as he grabbed hold of the high window sill and hauled himself up. Past the narrow window, only darkness seemed to wait, but when Leandros pushed the window open, it came with the distant chirping of crickets and a gust of warm, humid air.

“I’ll come around and open the door for you,” Leandros said, already climbing over the sill.

“Wait, but-,” Roman called, Leandros dropping out of the frame of night sky and disappearing from sight. Roman sighed. “What about the guard?”

Not expecting an answer, he looked around the room at the friendly decor and comfortable furniture. As short as their stay here had been, this was still a cage, and Roman had been trapped in enough cages to hate them more than anything. He never thought he’d find one here in Home. He wasn’t left to brood long; not even a minute had passed before there was a click on the other side of the room’s single door. It slid open, Leandros waiting on the other side.

Beside him slouched an unconscious oanai.

Roman raised an eyebrow, but knew better to speak until they were a good distance away from the cage and its keeper. The oanai’s sense of hearing was legendary, and Roman didn’t want to risk anything.

“How’d you manage that?” he finally asked in a whisper.

Leandros smiled at him, barely more than a twist of his lips. “I wish I could take credit, but I didn’t have to do anything. He was asleep at his post.”

“Ah. And what would you have done if he wasn’t?”

“I’m not terribly sure. Left you, maybe?”

“Very funny.”

Now that they had slipped their guard, escaping was just a matter of picking their way through Home to the Grand Staircase. Normally, this would be no easy feat, but Home quieted at night. Unless there was a party happening, the oanai slept like clockwork, not to wake until sunrise. The fae were another matter, but they had neither the oanai’s attention to detail nor keen hearing. They traveled in groups and spoke loudly, making them easy to avoid.

The nearer they grew to the steep-sloped hill that marked the edge of Home, the less buildings stood around them. That meant walking more in the open, but the Home had no lanterns like Unity cities did, and the further from Home’s center they traveled, the deeper the night grew around them. They kept off the main path, their boots sinking into mud from a recent rain with every step.

Leandros kept his gaze on the ground ahead of him, but Roman watched the hill ahead. When something shifted in the shadows of the hill, his sharp eyes saw it immediately. He grabbed Leandros’ arm. “Wait. Come this way.”

He led them along the side of an abandoned building, closer to the movement. When he focused, he could just make out three human-sized shapes picking their way down the hill in a line. Even as he watched, the second figure in the line slipped in the mud, toppling and taking the first down with it.

“Atiuh’s name,” Leandros groaned. They both stood in the shadow of the building watching the two figures tumble the rest of the way. “Is that-,”

“I think so.”

When they reached the bottom, the first figure pounced on the first, grabbing them by the collar. Even from ten feet away, Roman and Leandros could clearly make out the litany of curses leaving the first’s mouth.

Roman cupped his hands around his mouth and, lowering his voice for effect, called, “Who goes there?”

The swearing figure jumped to her feet and half-drew her sword, looking around for the source of the voice. When she saw Roman, she let out the most vicious swear yet and drew her sword the rest of the way, using it to point at him. “You! You think that’s funny?”

When she started advancing, Roman took a step behind Leandros.

“I understand how infuriating he can be, Ms. Corscia, but please keep quiet. The oanai have remarkable hearing,” Leandros said.

Evelyne scowled and sheathed her sword. She was almost unrecognizable, covered from head to toe in mud from her tumble. Behind her, Eresh Ochoa was much the same.

“Leandros! Mr. Hallisey!”

The third figure, a lanky human with long ears and a tail swishing from side to side with excitement, reached the bottom of the hill then. “That was quite a tumble, Eresh, are you alright? Oh! Hello, Captain lion cub!”

“Eftychia,” Leandros acknowledged. “What are you three doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Evelyne asked. Now that she was no longer shouting, her voice had taken on its usual gentle hue. “We’re here to rescue you, and it turns out you’re just wandering about?”

“I’m flattered,” Leandros said. He sounded, to Roman, more suspicious than flattered, but he doubted the others could hear the difference. “But we were about to escape on our own. You didn’t have to come for us.”

“We did, though,” Evelyne said, glancing up the hill. Following her gaze, Roman could make out another figure waiting at the top of the hill, one that waved when he looked.

“You brought Thea?” he asked. “And Eresh?”

“Ms. Fairfax is the one who insisted we run this little rescue mission,” Evelyne sniffed. “And she refused to be left behind.”

“And as dear Eresh is nympherai, he and I are the only ones who could be seen in Home without raising suspicion,” Eftychia added.

“I hate to break it to you, but an orinian in Home is suspicious,” Roman said.

Eftychia tipped her head to one side. “Are the oanai not working with Orean?”

“I don’t think so, but that’s not the point. Most orinians are afraid of the forest. You were raised in Gallontea, I take it?”

“Since birth,” Eftychia replied cheerfully.

“Is this the time?” Evelyne asked. “We need to get out of here.”

“I’m not going back through the mud,” Eresh said, still trying to wipe some of it from his person.

“No, it’s too slippery, anyhow,” Leandros said. “Sneaking up the stairs with two of us would have been easy, but a group this large…the grand stairway is visible from most points in Home, and all nympherai can see in the dark. I doubt we’d make it up without being spotted. I recommend we stagger our ascent.”

As a group, they made their way over to the base of the stairs, those in the group who’d never been to Home before looking up at the sheer size of each step with dismay.

“I’ll go first,” Eftychia said. “Since there’s a guard waiting at the top.” With that, she began bounding her way up the steps, enthusiastic even in the face of such a task as this.

When she was halfway up, passing the stone statue of Ellaes, Leandros asked, “Who next?”

“I’ll go last,” Roman said.

Either not wanting to be outdone or not trusting Roman’s motives, Evelyne narrowed her eyes and said, “Me too.”

Leandros raised an eyebrow, but shrugged and nodded for Eresh to follow him. Evelyne didn’t seem to realize this left her alone with Roman until Leandros and Eresh were four steps up. She opened her mouth as if to call them back, then closed it and shot a challenging look at Roman, daring him to try to speak to her.

To Roman’s surprise, it was Evelyne that spoke first. They were both watching Eresh, waiting eagerly for him to reach the Ellaes statue so they could begin their own climb, when Evelyne said, “Hey.”

Roman eyed her, wary. “What?”

“I was just wondering…” Evelyne paused, then. It was hard to read her expression behind the layer of mud caked on her face, but Roman could tell she was frowning. “You know what, forget it.”

“Evelyne…”

Evelyne whirled on him and jabbed a finger into his chest. “You have long lost the right to use my name, Egil. I would kill you right here if I didn’t have orders to obey.”

Roman cringed and opened his mouth to speak, but the sound of frantic bells picking up somewhere deep in Home stopped him. Listening for a moment, he said, “That’s coming from where they were holding me and Leandros. They’ve noticed we’re gone.”

“Then let’s go.”

He and Evelyne started up the steps at the same time, both climbing quickly and nimbly. They caught up to Leandros and Eresh near the top and found Eftychia dancing circles around the oanai guard, narrowly dodging his spear. As Evelyne rushed forward to help, the sound of quick feet moving through tall grass came from behind Eftychia. A figure darted past her, leaping at the last moment to barrel into the oanai’s chest. The oanai stumbled back and swatted at the newcomer, but the figure was deftly climbing his thick chest armor. With a one fluid movement, he hauled himself onto the oanai’s shoulder, drew one of the swords strapped to his back, and plunged it into the oanai’s chest.

While the oanai fell, the newcomer jumped gracefully off his shoulder, withdrawing his sword in the process and landing gracefully on his feet like a cat. That finished, he sheathed his sword and shoved his hands deep in his pockets. “You were faster than I expected. I was going to take a nap.”

“I told you to watch Ms. Fairfax, Ivor, not nap,” Evelyne said.

Roman shoved past her. “Why did you do that?” he snarled, getting in Ivor’s face. The Enforcer leaned back, but his typical lazy expression didn’t change. “You didn’t have to kill him.”

“I removed an obstacle. You should thank me,” Ivor said.

“An obstacle? Is that all people are to you?” Roman asked. He could feel the first warning tingles that meant he was losing control, but he couldn’t help it. In Ivor’s eyes, he saw the Enforcer he used to be.

“I’m better than Eftychia. She plays with her food.”

Roman growled, the sound too rough and animalistic to have come from a human throat. That, finally, make Ivor blink and take a small step back.

“Ivor, stand down. That’s an order,” Evelyne said, a hint of worry making its way into her voice.

Roman felt a gentle hand on his arm, then, tugging him away from the three Enforcers. “Roman,” Leandros’ low voice said into his ear, “You need to calm down.”

Thea chose that moment to join them, looking between the group members to the fallen oanai. Her gaze lingered on Roman, making him wonder just what she saw in his aura. “What happened?” she asked.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” Eftychia said, forcing false cheer into her voice. She took Thea’s hand, and pulling her over to where Eresh stood, watching the confrontation with wide eyes, took his as well. “It’s time to go rejoin our team, don’t you think?”

Ivor and Leandros started after them, following them into the forest, but Evelyne cut Roman off. She appraised him coolly, looking him up and down, but Roman knew the look in her eye well. It was a look he’d seen many times – the look of someone realizing that he should be feared.

“This may be a rescue mission, but we’re not heroes. We’re killers,” she said, adding, “You of all people should know that.”

Roman looked away. “Get out of my way.”

“Tell me something, first,” Evelyne said, holding a hand out to stop Roman when he tried to move past her. “Tell me, does it ever go away? Did running from us cure you, like you thought it would?”

Roman pursed his lips, not answering, and Evelyne said, “Thought not. I know bloodlust when I see it.”

With that, she turned and followed the others, leaving Roman with nothing to do but follow.


Chapter 26

A/N: Welcome to book 2 of Fractured Magic! There are no words to express how excited I am to share this next arc of the story with you all. Things are going to get very intense from here on out. As always, comments and shares are very, very appreciated!


Many forests sprinkled the southeastern corner of Calaidia, but none were like Lyryma. Lyryma was an entity of its own, a mystery premised on a simple question: how did it exist? How did it thrive when the climate was all wrong? Where other southeastern forests were sparse and dry, with little canopy coverage, Lyryma was dense and humid, with canopy coverage so thick in some places that not even sunslight could fight its way through. In long summers without rain, when the surrounding forests suffered, Lyryma still thrived. In cold winters, when snow touched Gallontea and Creae valley, Lyryma stayed warm and green.

The road to Illyon cut through one of the forests surrounding Lyryma and followed closely parallel to Lyryma’s border. As Unity’s team traveled it, if they looked to the east, they could see the point where the trees transitioned, like a harsh line drawn in a sandbox. Where the shadows deepened, Lyryma began.

In the course of his lifetime, Roman had traveled this road many times. He knew, then, that most things were as they should be. He also knew that one thing was not. The forest was much too quiet. No insects chirped and no birds sang, and the only sound he could really hear – apart from sounds his team made – was the wind rustling through the dry underbrush.

He closed his eyes and tipped his head to the side, trying to listen.

Across from him, Gareth and Trinity discussed the merits of different popular academic journals. Across the camp, the security team huddled in their usual circle, discussing something in low tones. Approaching feet crunched nearby, and just in the distance—

“Roman.”

Roman opened his eyes to find Leandros standing over him. Because of the warm weather, he’d forsaken his usual heavy layers for a simple, light tunic, it’s shade bringing out the ice blue of his eyes. His arms crossed and, at Roman’s surprised stare, he looked away. Roman couldn’t help it, though. This was the first time Leandros had willingly sought out a conversation with him, and they’d been on the road for nearly a week, now.

“I could use your help with something,” Leandros said, when Roman didn’t immediately respond.

“Sure,” Roman said, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice. He rose and followed Leandros through their small camp – hardly a camp, right now. They’d stopped for a late lunch, not bothering to unpack any of their wagons or belongings for the short break. Leandros stopped at his trailer, holding the door open for Roman and not looking him in the eye.

Roman hesitated only a moment before climbing inside. The inside felt even smaller than the trailer looked from the outside. It was plain and clean, barely lived in. Even so, and even if it was maybe a third of the size, it reminded Roman of Dinara’s trailer. His chest constricted a little at the thought.

“Roman,” Leandros said, in a tone achingly familiar to Roman. It was a little annoyed, a little exasperated, but still with some undercurrent of fondness. Or so Roman liked to think, anyway. It reminded him of a simpler, happier time in his life, and the pain in his chest eased.

“Sorry,” Roman said, realizing he’d stopped in the doorway. He moved to give Leandros space to step up, but the trailer barely fit the two of them, and Leandros had to turn sideways to slip past him. Roman tracked his movements. “Why am I here? I thought you didn’t want to talk to me.”

“Who said you’re here to talk?” Leandros said as he passed a small black bag to Roman. “You’re not going to like the answer.”

With a frown, Roman opened the bag’s clasps and peeked inside. “Oh, no. No, no, no. I can’t help you with this.”

Roman,” Leandros said, his voice almost a whine. “It itches.”

“Get someone else to help! I’m sure there’s someone around with the right experience.” Roman pushed the bag into Leandros’ chest and turned to leave, but Leandros caught him by the wrist.

“Roman, please. I don’t trust any of them.”

The implication there made Roman pause. That Leandros would still trust him with this, after everything he’d done. He sighed, tugged his hands through his hair, and said, “Fine. Sit down and take your shirt off.”

Leandros did as Roman said, sitting on the simple cot and shrugging out of his shirt, exposing a chest wrapped heavily in bandage. Roman hadn’t been able to look the last time he’d seen Leandros like this, unable to bear the sight of Isobel’s needle and string, and he tried not to look too much now. He certainly tried not to notice how Leandros had filled out since they were younger, how his shoulders had broadened.

“You want me to…what?” Roman asked. “Take them out?”

Leandros nodded. “Are you going to be alright with that?”

Roman sighed and knelt on the ground beside Leandros. He really hated stitches. “I’ll be fine. Can’t say I’ll be as steady as Isobel would’ve been.”

“Steadiness is the last thing I’d expect from you, Roman.”

Roman pursed his lips. He’d deserved that. Carefully, he unraveled the bandage around Leandros’ torso, trying to touch skin as little as possible. First sanitizing his hands with the solution provided in the small bag of medical supplies, he then sanitized tweezers and scissors, finally finishing by cleaning the area around Leandros’ wound.

“Do you know what you’re doing, or do you need me to talk you through it?”

Roman studied the wound. It looked much better, ugly as the stitches were. “I know what I’m doing, even if I’d rather not be doing it.”

Leandros sucked in a sharp breath once Roman set about removing the stitches. It was a slow process, Roman taking it one stitch at a time and trying not to think about what he was doing.

“Leandros?” he said.

“Hm?”

“Talk to me. I need something to distract me.”

“Do I really want you distracted when you’re holding scissors near my skin?”

“You do if you don’t want me to be sick,” Roman said.

Leandros let out a short laugh, almost making Roman stab him in the side.

“Careful!” Roman said.

“Sorry,” Leandros said. After a long pause, he said, “I don’t know what to talk to you about, Roman.”

Roman’s hands stilled. He remembered a time when the conversations between them flowed easily, when they could talk about anything and everything and nothing at all. “How’s your mother been?” he asked, voice teasing. When he glanced up, he saw Leandros biting back a smile, an expression the alfar corrected when he noticed Roman watching.

“Happier, now that you’re out of my life. As vicious as ever, if not more so. I don’t want to talk about her, now or ever. You should know that.”

“I do,” Roman said easily, “But it got you talking.”

That was enough to get Roman through the rest of the stitches. When they were all out, only a fresh, pink scar remained.

“Thank you,” Leandros said, once the wound had been cleaned a second time and Leandros was able to tug his shirt back on. Roman grinned and opened his mouth to reply, but Leandros cut him off. “Don’t push your luck, Hallisey.”

Roman pouted. “I wasn’t going to push anything. Leandros…”

He would have continued, but a scream from outside cut him off.

Leandros and Roman were both up in an instant, Leandros making it to the door first and practically throwing himself out of it. But he froze on the stairs, and Roman was forced to peek over his shoulder to find the source of the commotion.

It wasn’t hard. Quick shapes moved through the trees and within seconds, a group of oanai had encircled their camp.

Leandros drew his pistol, and across the camp, Evelyne and the other security team members drew their own weapons. Roman caught Leandros’ wrist at the same time Thea stepped in front of Evelyne.

“Don’t attack them! They’re not violent!” Thea cried.

“Ms. Fairfax, with all due respect, they have spears pointed at us. If that’s not violent, what is?” Evelyne asked, though she made no move to push Thea aside.

“The girl is right,” one of the oanai said, stepping forward. He lowered his spear, but the others still held theirs ready. “We’re not here to harm you.”

Leandros hesitated, likely weighing his trust in Thea’s abilities against their current predicament, then shook off Roman’s hand and put away his pistol. “Put your weapons away. They won’t help much in this situation, anyway.”

Roman did a quick count. There were at least ten oanai. For so many of them to be so far from Home, it couldn’t have been a coincidence that they’d run into the Unity team. This was a premeditated ambush. And even with a dragon, even with four of Unity’s Enforcers plus Roman on the team, they didn’t stand a change against ten oanai. The oanai were hunters, fighters. They knew how to take out prey quickly and painlessly. Roman had fought alongside them, and he had no desire to ever fight against them.

“You let them sneak up on us?” Roman asked Evelyne.

Her eyes widened, and she spluttered a moment. “Let!” she finally spat. “And where were you? What were you doing?”

“What does that matter? I’m not captain of the security team.”

Evelyne’s hand dropped to the hilt of her sword, and for a moment, Roman thought she might draw it despite Leandros’ order.

“Roman, do shut up,” Leandros said, finally stepping down from the trailer and into the camp. To the oanai who’d spoken earlier, he said, “We’re just passing through; we’ve done nothing to harm you or your kin. What’s the meaning of this assault?”

“We only wish to ask you some questions.”

“Hell of a way to go about it,” Ivor, one of the other security members, said. For once, his hands weren’t buried deep in his pockets. One rested on the hilt of the blade strapped to his back, instead.

“If that’s true,” Leandros said, ignoring Ivor, “Ask your questions and let us be on our way.”

The oanai who’d spoken looked at the others and said something in their own language. Another said something back. “No,” the first oanai said, turning back to Leandros. You must come with us to home. We’ll ask our questions there.”

Home was hours out of their way, and knowing how oanai politics worked, they’d be stuck there for days while Home’s Council argued and dragged their feet. Leandros cringed and glanced over the group, instinctively seeking Roman out. “What do you think?” he asked, quietly.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Roman answered.

“He’s right,” Evelyne said, grudgingly. She eyed the circle of oanai around them, “Much as I’d love to teach these oversized deer a lesson, the diplomats’ safety is our priority. Let’s just get this over with, then.”

“Not you,” the oanai said. “Just the alfar.” His gaze then tracked over to Roman, still standing behind Leandros. “And him.”

“Leandros, you can’t let them split us up!” Eresh cried. “The mission guidelines from the Magistrates clearly stated we should all stick together in any situation-,”

“Captain?” Evelyne asked, interrupting Eresh and watching Leandros for his response. Her gaze was curious, the least hostile Roman had seen it.

“You’re in charge while I’m gone, Ms. Corscia. Wait for us until morning, and if we haven’t returned by then, continue on to Illyon without us.”

Evelyne nodded, catching Eresh by the collar when he tried to approach Leandros. “Listen to the Captain’s orders,” she told the dryad.

“Come with us,” the oanai told Roman and Leandros, turning and starting toward the forest. The two humans shared a look before following, three other oanai splitting off from the circle to follow them.

Evelyne watched dispassionately as they went. Six oanai remained. Six of them against four security members. Still not great odds for a fight. “You have what you wanted, don’t you? What are you sticking with us for?” she asked.

“To make sure you don’t go after them,” one of the oanai answered peaceably.

“You heard my orders. I don’t intend to break them,” Evelyne said. She dropped back down to her spot beside the fire, the rest of the team uneasily following her lead and settling in to wait. Theodosia Fairfax knelt beside Evelyne, her wide eyes fixed on Lyryma.

Evelyne hated Roman and she didn’t particularly care for Nochdvor one way or another, but for some reason, seeing the concern in Thea’s eyes made her uneasy. “They’ll be fine,” she said, voice low so the oanai wouldn’t hear. “If anyone can take care of themselves, it’s those two.”

Thea relaxed at that, a small smile stealing its way onto her face. “I believe it,” she said. “But we won’t really leave them, will we?”

Evelyne knew what her answer should be. She was under strict orders from the Magistrates, and leaving Leandros and Roman to Lyryma would not only fall within the bounds of those orders, it would solve all of her problems. She shrugged. “You heard what Leandros said.”

“I heard what he said,” Thea challenged, “But are you really going to listen to him? You’re in charge while he’s gone, aren’t you?”

Evelyne studied Thea a moment. She’d thought the girl timid, at first. Seeing her like this, her long hair coming loose from its bun and her green eyes boring holes into Evelyne, a smirk on her face that promised and withheld, she couldn’t possibly. “What do you propose I do?”

“Rescue them,” Thea said.

Thea smiled a little wider, encouraging, and Evelyne replied without thinking. “If they’re not back by nightfall, I’ll consider it.”


The transition from the earlier forest into Lyryma had been an obvious one. The foliage transformed around them: the trees grew taller, wider, stronger. The crisp fall air turned warm and humid. Roman looked around fondly, remembering all the times he’d wandered through this forest. After he’d escaped Unity, all those years ago, Lyryma had been his solace. Home had accepted him, let him live there for as long as he needed. They’d healed him when he’d been broken, or at least bandaged him up well enough that he’d been able to keep fighting. It had been during that time that he’d first met Leandros, actually.

He looked over at his friend, but Leandros seemed lost in thought. Roman wondered if he, too, was remembering, or if his obsession with this mission left him with blinders looking forward.

“How long has Lyryma been like this?” Roman asked, suddenly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Leandros turn his way, frowning. Roman just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something different about this wood. The shadows seemed deeper, the quiet stifling.

“Egil noticed that quickly,” the lead oanai said. “The forest has been unhappy, as of late, and that has made it unwelcoming. It’s no longer safe for even our best to hunt alone.”

“I don’t remember introducing myself,” Roman said.

The oanai glanced at Egil, then quickly away, his ears lowering almost sheepishly. “We’ve met. I don’t expect Egil to remember, as it was a very long time ago. I am Noss.”

“Pleased to re-make your acquaintance, Noss,” Roman said. “Even given the circumstances.”

It wasn’t Noss’ fault he was sent to lead this ambush, after all.

“And yours as well, Egil. It’s an honor now, as it was then. I hope you’ll forgive my bringing you along. The Council only requested the presence of Unity’s team leader, but I know seeing you will ease their fears.”

“Ah, so we’re off to meet the Council,” Roman said.

As if realizing he’d said more than he should, Noss pointedly focused on the path ahead, relaxing only when Roman changed the thread of their conversation. Leandros didn’t speak once the entire walk.


Though Lyryma had changed, Home had not.

The came upon the city built into the ground several hours into their walk. As always, soft melodies drifted up through the mist hanging over Home. Roman recognized some from half-forgotten Council meetings he’d attended. He used to join them just to hear the songs; he’d always loved music and stories, even if he couldn’t carry a tune himself, and the sweet music of the oanai had soothed his fractured soul when he’d needed it most.

Noss led them down stone steps, past the statue of Ellaes that watched over the city, and through Home to Central Field. There, several oanai waited, many of whom Roman knew- and knew well enough to know they were all senior members of Orean’s Council. They stood when they saw the approaching humans, offering low bows that Leandros and Roman returned.

“Egil!” Mani greeted, “We had not expected you! And young mister Nochdvor. It has been a long time. I’m happy to see you two are still traveling together.”

Leandros ignored the last comment. His normally warm voice now cold as ice, he said, “I’d always meant to return, but I never imagined it would be as a prisoner.”

“Please do not think of yourselves as prisoners,” Apa said. “You’re welcome guests, old friends.”

“Who aren’t allowed to leave until you say so?” Roman asked.

“Please understand–,”

“You ambushed our camp with nearly a dozen armed hunters and forced us hours out of our way; forgive us if we fail to see civility in the situation,” Leandros said, voice cold.

“Then don’t,” another council member, Ioka, said. He looked at Roman, eyes narrowing into slits. “You’re with Unity now, too?”

Roman frowned. He’d never liked Ioka. “You still make too many assumptions, Ioka.”

“So you’re not on Unity’s payroll?” Ioka said, then nodded at Leandros. “And he’s not leading this team of Unity’s?”

“Ioka,” Apa warned. All three Council members had more gray fur than Roman remembered them having, the twisting horns on their heads grown even longer with age. “This meeting has not started well. Please, let us begin again. We brought you here because we’ve heard one side of the story and simply wish to hear the other. We have no intention of detaining you for long.”

Beside Roman, Leandros relaxed infinitesimally. His stony expression didn’t change, but Roman stood close enough that he could feel the tension drain out of him.

“Let’s talk elsewhere,” Ioka said. “This is a conversation that should be held privately.”

Roman blinked surprised. Home didn’t usually care for privacy. Meetings were public, parties were held for all of Home, and even the doors of individual homes tended to be left open for neighbors who wanted to chat.

The two humans followed the oanai to an old, unused building near the field, Noss trailing a respectful distance behind. It was a beautiful building, with images carved along the stone sidings, half-obscured by ivy. Roman couldn’t remember a single time he’d seen it used.

Inside, they were led to a dining room of sorts, its tables clear of food and its halls empty. The melodies of Home couldn’t be heard, here; when Ioka closed the doors, full silence descended upon them. The Council members sat around the low table– low for them, anyway. When Roman and Leandros sat, it reached almost to their shoulders.

“Forgive the precautions,” a Council member Roman didn’t recognize said. “We would prefer not to overwhelm the people of Home any more than necessary.”

“Overwhelm them?” Roman repeated.

“We’ve had so much news of the outside world lately,” the Council member explained.

“Well, we can see that. You knew enough to expect the team – how?” Roman asked.

Mani nodded. “We were tipped off to Unity’s plans by a trio of orinians that passed through. We’ve been waiting for your team for some time.”

“Oh, so they made it! I’m the one who sent them your way. Are they still here?”

“They made it safely back to Orean. Our daughter escorted them herself and returned just this morning.”

“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” Roman said.

Leandros elbowed him. “You told orinians about this mission?”

“In my defense, I wasn’t on the team, then. And after Unity abducted and arrested them, I felt they had the right to know.”

Leandros frowned. “They what?”

“Therein lies the cause of our concern,” Ioka said. “Unity has already taken hostile action against Orean. We sympathize with Orean and don’t want to see them come to harm, but more importantly, whatever happens between Orean and Unity, we don’t want to be pulled into it.”

“If you don’t let us go, you will be,” Leandros snapped.

“Leandros,” Roman warned.

Leandros’ hands curled into fists at his sides, but he forced himself to take a deep breath. “I understand your position. But if you didn’t want to get pulled into anything, you shouldn’t have interfered at all. Unity doesn’t care for me – they hate Roman – but if anything happens to us while we’re in Lyryma, they will blame you. It’s a matter of pride. They’re looking for an excuse to spark a conflict with you, just as they were with Orean, and by taking us from our camp you’ve given it to them.”

Roman watched Leandros with wide eyes, wondering just when he’d gotten so…competent.

“If you know this mission of Unity’s is an excuse, why are you helping them?” Ioka asked.

Leandros shrugged. “Because it’s an excuse that will get me my uncle back.”

“If we find Amos, Unity’s excuse will collapse,” Roman said. “They’ll have to leave Orean alone.”

“That’s assuming Orean didn’t do it,” Ioka said. “Didn’t take Mr. Nochdvor’s uncle, that is.”

“Yeah,” Roman admitted. “Would you side with them, if they did?”

“That’s what we are trying to decide.”

“Orean is where we’ll find answers,” Leandros began, “But I don’t believe Orean is behind my uncle’s disappearance.”

“How can you be sure?” Mani asked.

“I saw the woman who took him. She was orinian, but she was also something else, entirely. Her eyes glowed, she wielded magic. I’m not even entirely sure she was alive.

Roman knew Unity hadn’t believed Leandros and Rheamarie’s story. But instead of immediately expressing disbelief, Home’s Council members began murmuring among themselves.

Finally, Apa said, “That sounds like the creature Leihlani saw.”

Roman and Leandros both sat forward at once. “What creature?”

“While escorting the orinians south, our daughter met with a strange creature. She claimed it was a red dragon, but one without a heartbeat. A strange glow filled the space between its open wounds, she said, but it still reeked of death.”

Roman looked at Leandros. “Did the orinian–,”

“Yes.”

“You two…you will find who’s behind this, won’t you?” Apa asked. “If what you say is true, perhaps this kidnapper is also responsible for the darkness that’s befallen Lyryma of late.”

“We’ll find them,” Roman promised.

Apa nodded.

“We need to discuss this further,” Mani said. “Thank you for your patience. Please, for now, go enjoy Home. We’ll send someone to escort you back to your team once we’re finished here.”

Leandros pursed his lips, but Roman grabbed his wrist and dragged him out of the strange building.

Outside, Leandros tore his arm from Roman’s grip. “I knew we weren’t just imagining things!” he said, more to himself than Roman. “This is proof. Something strange is happening, here.”

“I’m starting to agree with you,” Roman said. He, of all people, knew magic wasn’t impossible. There was no other explanation for his own…transformations.

“But why Amos? What’s the point of taking him?”

“And what’s a red dragon doing in Lyryma? The answers won’t come just from wondering, Leandros. There’s not much we can do until we get to Orean.”

“I hate that,” Leandros growled. “I’m sick of feeling helpless! I’m sick of playing these games, of waiting when I’m told to wait, of wandering hours out of my way because I have no choice in the matter. Every delay we face makes it more likely that my uncle– that he–,”

“He’s not going to die because we took a few extra hours getting to him, Leandros.”

“How do you know?” Leandros snapped.

“Because when I was an Enforcer, kidnapping and killing is what I did,” Roman said flatly, watching Leandros cringe. “You don’t kidnap someone just to kill them weeks later. Either you need them alive, or you kill them immediately. Keeping them around when you don’t need to is more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“Yes. Either it’s too late to help him, or a few hours’ delay won’t make a difference. And this delay did bring us a step closer to understanding what’s going on, so you should be happy.” Roman started walking while he talked, Leandros following automatically. “I know how important this mission is to you, Leandros. I do. I know better than anyone how important Amos is to you. But I also know you, and you need to stop beating yourself up over every little thing that goes wrong.”

Leandros pointedly avoided looking Roman’s way. They passed onto the plush grasses of Central Field, Roman still leading Leandros along.

“There’s really nothing we can do right now, so take this moment to relax,” Roman continued. “We’re in the perfect place for it.”

Leandros sighed. He looked out across the field, to where a group of young oanai were gathered, one playing a sweet, trilling flute while the others danced. “I suppose you’re right.”

“That’s the spirit!”

Roman stepped further into the field, his feet moving to the beat of the flute’s song. He wasn’t even aware he was doing it, nor was he aware of Leandros’ gaze on him, soft and uncharacteristically vulnerable.

He closed off again when Roman turned to face him. “Do you remember when we met?” he asked.

Roman’s smile widened. It was the same charming, boyish smile that Leandros remembered. “Yes.”

“I thought you were such an asshole.”

Roman’s smile fell. “I saved your life!”

“You wouldn’t talk to me!” Leandros countered. His eyes again swept over the field. It had been on this spot, too many years ago to count, that they’d held their first conversation. “Then you got drunk on fae wine and wouldn’t stop talking.”

Roman laughed. “And that’s when you changed your mind about me?” He fell back onto the grass, patting the spot beside him.

After a brief pause, Leandros sat. “Yeah,” he admitted. Another pause. “I should’ve trusted my instincts.”

“Oh, come on,” Roman said.

Leandros snickered and laid beside him, and they stared up at the darkening sky in companionable silence. Roman didn’t know how much time passed like that, but he knew nightfall was nearing. If they had to wait much longer, it would be too late to travel safely through Lyryma. Beside him, Leandros must have been having similar thoughts, because he pulled out his father’s old wristwatch and scowled at the ticking clock face.

“I’m sure they won’t be much longer,” Roman said.

Before long, the sound of rustling grass and approaching hooves made him sit up, Leandros joining a little more slowly. They both climbed to their feet as the Council approached. “See?” Roman whispered, ignoring his growing suspicion that something was wrong. “What did I say?”

“We cannot allow you to return to your team,” Mani announced, voice somber.

What?” Roman asked. “But what about everything we discussed?”

“This is a mistake,” Leandros said, voice low in warning. “When Unity finds out about this, they won’t forgive you.”

Mani flinched, whiskers twitching, but said, “Circumstances have changed.”

“What circumstances?” Roman asked. “What changed your mind?”

“I did.”

Out from behind the Council members stepped a nympherai woman. She’d traded her customary bright colors for traveling clothes, but even so, even after so many years, her face was unmistakable, as were the flame-like markings that licked across her skin.

She smiled at them, and there was so much false kindness in it that Roman wanted to scream. Or run, maybe. Without consciously meaning to, Roman took Leandros’ hand, squeezing it so hard Leandros looked at him in alarm.

The woman’s smile turned sad. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”

When she took a step forward, Roman took half a step back.

“Devikra?” Leandros asked, like he didn’t believe what he was seeing. He didn’t drop Roman’s hand. “What are you doing here? What’s going on? Is this about a vision?”

“Isn’t it always?” Devikra asked with a sigh. “It’s good to see you again, Leandros.”

“You too,” Leandros said, not sounding sure.

“Egil,” Devikra began, reaching for Roman’s other hand. Roman drew back. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears, picking up the closer Devikra got. He shook with the exertion of staying calm, of letting that dark side of him take over. He couldn’t lose control in front of her. Not again.

And Leandros…he still didn’t know.

“Don’t touch me.”

“Egil, please, hasn’t it been long enough? How many apologies do I have to give?”

“There aren’t enough apologies in the world.”

Leandros looked between the two of them with wide eyes, then took a decisive step in front of Roman. “Dev, explain. Now.”

“I can’t. I need you to trust me, Leandros, and trust that this is for your protection. I’ve instructed the Council to keep you here until I’ve given the all clear.”

“Instructed?” Leandros repeated. “Why would they listen to you?:”

Devikra only smiled that same sad smile. “Just trust me?”

Unable to listen anymore, Roman tore his hand from Leandros’ and promptly stormed off in the opposite direction. He could feel his control slipping as he walked, felt the pinching pressure behind his eyes that meant they’d transformed. He expected Leandros to follow him, but he hadn’t expected him to run ahead and cut him off.

He wasn’t able to close his eyes in time, the alfar’s sharp gasp telling him that Leandros had seen. It brought on a fresh wave of panic, carrying the transformation further. He was sure his veins were glowing by now.

“Roman…”

“Is she following us?”

“No. She’s talking to the Council,” Leandros said, his voice so steady that Roman risked a peek. He found Leandros giving him a look that was more concerned than afraid.

It certainly wasn’t the reaction he’d expected.

A warm hand took his own, and when Roman looked down, he saw the white light of his veins setting Leandros’ pale skin faintly aglow. Leandros pulled Roman away from Central Field, Roman following his lead easily.

With each step, the glow faded and returned to normal. By the time they stopped, well out of the Council and Devikra’s sight, he almost felt in control again.

“What just happened?” Leandros asked.

“I…don’t want to talk about it.”

Leandros pursed his lips, but accepted the answer without argument. “And Devikra? You used to be friends. What happened?”

“I don’t want to talk about that, either.”

Leandros let out a sharp breath. “Enough, Roman! I don’t need answers now, but I want them eventually. Can you at least promise you’ll tell me when you’re ready?”

Roman looked away, refusing to answer. Leandros made a frustrated noise, but before he could say anything else, they were interrupted.

“Egil! Mr. Nochdvor!” Roman flinched, but it was only Noss. “Lady E– Lady Devikra has requested that I show you to your rooms. Please, come with me.”


Rooms, as it turned out, was actually just one singular room that reminded Roman strongly of a prison.

That’s not to say it was cold or dirty; on the contrary, it was a pleasant sort of space, with oanai-sized furnishings and warm, muted colors. But the room had a single window, placed far too high up for either Roman or Leandros to look out, and an oanai guard stood just outside their door.

After all of the emotions Roman had cycled through in the last hour, he hated how stifling the space was.

“There’s only one bed,” Leandros pointed out.

Roman eyed the bed in question. “So there is.”

Leandros dropped down onto it, maneuvering so he could pull the blanket over himself without having to sit back up. “You can take the floor.”

Roman frowned. He knew Leandros was – rightfully – upset with him, but the bed was big enough to comfortably fit a full-grown oanai. “What, you don’t want to share? Worried you’d enjoy it too much?”

Leandros scoffed, then muttered something to himself. “I hate you.”

“I know,” Roman said, softly. He couldn’t look at Leandros anymore, so he turned away. “You’re well within your rights to. But I still wish you didn’t.”

A heavy pause followed the admission. “Roman…” Leandros sighed. There came the rustling of fabric, and Roman looked over to see Leandros holding the blankets up. “Just. Come here.”

Roman didn’t wait to be told twice. He climbed into bed, only pausing when Leandros said. “Put that lamp out, first.”

Roman did, turning the wick down into the burner until they were plunged into darkness, then settled down into the bed with a contented sigh. He’d been sleeping on the cold ground for over a week now, so the plush mattress and Leandros’ warmth beside him had him drifting toward sleep embarrassingly quickly.

“I don’t hate you,” Leandros said in a low voice, startling Roman out of it. “I miss you. I worry about you, and it annoys me when you won’t let me.”

There was a pause, then Leandros added, “Do me a favor and pretend you’re asleep so I can pretend you didn’t hear that.”

“Not a chance,” Roman whispered, a smile spreading across his face and something warm sparking in his heart.

Leandros groaned. “Maybe I do hate you.”

“No, no taking back what you said now.”

Leandros reached out blindly, giving him a light shove. It was too dark to see, so Roman hadn’t realized how close they were. Leandros seemed to have the same thought, because he yanked his arm back as if he’d been stung.

“Leandros…”

“That’s it,” Leandros sat up suddenly, throwing the blankets off both of them. “I’m not doing this.”

“What! What are you doing?”

“We’re breaking out of here. Damn Devikra and damn Home’s ‘hospitality.'”


A/N: There was ONLY ONE BED

Egil – III

370 Years Ago

Year of Unity 1500

Bellona kicked her legs, the heels of her worn, slightly-pinched boots tapping against the legs of the chair she sat in. Her feet didn’t quite reach the floor, which made it harder to sit still. She couldn’t let herself think about her surroundings, unfamiliar and cold, so instead she focused on the soft taps her kicking made.

She didn’t know where she was. Well, in a distant sort of way, she knew – she was somewhere important, being guided and pushed around by people more important than her mind knew how to comprehend. But she hadn’t paid much attention to the specifics, or even how she got there. Her life lately had been little more than a blur – fire and warfare, then carriage rides filled with sickly sweet smiles and promises that she was finally safe.

She didn’t feel safe. She’d felt safe with her parents, but then…

Her head snapped up when a door creaked open, a man entering the common room. When Bellona saw his face, she gasped and threw herself out of her chair, then crawling on hands and knees to hide behind the leather sofa beside her. She stayed out of sight for as long as she could bear, her heart picking up when she realized she could hear no sounds coming from the man. Then she slowly, slowly peeked over the top of the couch.

The man had moved to the open kitchen across the room. His back was to her, but Bellona knew exactly who he was. He’d appeared in her village just before the fighting began, before everything went up in flames. Her parents had called him the Sword of Unity. Wherever he went, Unity’s wrath followed.

She’d heard the stories about him. She feared him more than she feared the monsters who prowled outside her village at night, their glowing eyes staring out from the forest with hunger.

“You can come out,” the man called, his back still to her. “I won’t hurt you.”

Bellona ducked back behind the couch again but could only stay hidden for so long before her curiosity got the better of her. When she peered over the couch a second time, she found the man much closer, sitting in the chair she’d vacated. She hadn’t seen him up close before, and what she saw surprised her. He looked nice. Nice like her best friend’s older brother, who sometimes teased but had always been kind to Bellona.

A plate full of sliced fruit rested precariously on the arm of the chair beside him and when he offered a piece to her, Bellona hesitantly left her hiding spot to take it.

“’Atta girl,” the man said. “Go ahead and sit. How did you get in here?”

Bellona spoke through a mouthful of fruit. “A man brought me here and told me to wait.”

“Brought you through the prison?”

Bellona nodded. She’d never even been near a prison before today, and now she’d walked through one.

“What’s your name?” the man asked, voice soft.

“Bellona.”

“That’s a pretty name,” the man said. He sat forward, his pitying expression turning intense. This was the expression he wore just before Bellona’s village burned. She shrank back into the couch cushions, but she couldn’t look away from the man’s hard black eyes.

“Hold onto that name, Bellona, because they’re going to try to take it from you. That’s what they do. They take your name and give you a new one, and they make you forget who you used to be. They turn you into whoever they need you to be, instead. Do you understand?”

Bellona shook her head. She wanted to go home. “They who?”

“Unity,” the man answered.

“And who are you?”

“My name is Egil.”

“Is that your real name?”

Egil smiled sadly. “No, they took mine a long time ago.”

“I want to go home,” Bellona whined, despite knowing, deep down, that she had no home to go back to.

Something softened around Egil’s eyes. “I know,” he said, and Bellona thought he really did understand.

Then the man from before returned, the one who brought Bellona to these barracks, and Egil flinched. He stiffened, standing and dropping into a tense bow. When he straightened again, all the kindness was gone from his face.

“Magistrate,” Egil greeted, voice flat.

“Ah, I was just looking for you. I see you’ve met your new charge,” the Magistrate said, eyeing Bellona and the plate of fruit on Egil’s chair, then dismissing them both in favor of turning back to Egil. “You’re to train her like you did the others. Better, even. If she’s anything like her parents, she’s got potential.”

“She’s just a child.”

The Magistrate raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me you won’t do it?”

“No,” Egil said, glancing briefly at Bellona. “I’m just saying she’s too young for training to do her any good. Or the rest of us, for that matter. She’ll just get in the way and waste my time.”

You don’t decide what’s a waste of your time; we do. Train her,” the Magistrate said, already turning to leave. He didn’t so much as glance Bellona’s way before heading back upstairs, toward the prison.

Egil closed his eyes, clenched his jaw. At his sides, his hands balled into fists. For a moment, it seemed he might go after the Magistrate. But the sounds of the Magistrate’s footsteps soon faded, and so did the tension in Egil’s shoulders.

“Come on,” Egil said with a sigh. “I’ll take you to your new room.”

Bellona followed Egil down the hall, fighting the tears that clouded her vision.

“How old are you, anyway?” Egil asked as they walked past plain room after plain room.

“Twelve.”

Twelve,” Egil repeated with a groan. He stopped, and Bellona almost ran into him. “Here. This is it.”

When Bellona saw her new “room,” the tears finally started to fall. Egil’s eyes widened and he froze a moment, unsure of what to do. He crouched beside her, gentle again now that the Magistrate was gone. “Come, now. Don’t-,”

“Don’t tell me not to cry!” Bellona said. “My mum and dad are dead and my village is gone and now I’m stuck in this awful place!”

“I wasn’t going to tell you not to try. Go ahead, if it helps you feel better. Just don’t ever let them see you,” Egil said. “Try to get some sleep. Breakfast is at six, and you’ll have to join the other Enforcers for training, after.”

“Even though I’ll just get in the way?” Bellona asked, wiping her nose on her sleeve.

“You won’t get in the way,” Egil said. “I promise.”

Bellona wiped her eyes.

“Bellona,” Egil said, taking one of Bellona’s hands in both of his own. He glanced down the hall, in the direction the Magistrate disappeared in, before continuing. “Listen to me. They’ll summon you for questions, sometimes. The Magistrates. Do whatever they ask and your life here will be painless, but remember what I told you. Remember your name. Remember your parents, remember how they died. Don’t let them take that from you.”

“I won’t.”

Egil left shortly after that, and Bellona took the first tentative steps into her new room. She dropped her small bag on the bed, opened one of the dresser drawers to peer inside, then caught sight of herself in the mirror in the corner. Her pale face was blotchy red, swollen from crying. Her hair was loose and tangled, making her look like some wild thing – that hair was apple-red, and her skin had the feather-brushed texture of a marionite.

Bellona forced herself to look away. She sat on the stiff bed, steeled her heart, and realized she’d be stuck in these barracks for a long time to come.

Chapter 25

A/N: Thank you all for reading so far! This chapter’s a long one and a very important one, definitely fitting for the end of Book 1. Lots of pieces click together and some BIG players are introduced. Please comment your thoughts and theories below and, if you’re enjoying the story so far, share it with a friend!


Part One

Roman shivered and rubbed his hands together to generate friction. They faced the first real autumn chill, made more bitingly cold by the unexpectedness of it. The cold stung Roman’s fingers and cheeks, and when he breathed, it clawed into his lungs, painful and purifying. Summer had lost its footing, and because the universe was cruel, it had done so the very day they’d left Gallontea. Perhaps Atiuh saw what they were doing and disapproved of their mission.

Roman snorted at the thought.

The others didn’t seem bothered by the cold, but they all sat nearer the fire than Roman. He kept his distance, watching and thinking. Their camp stood around them, with small tents for the diplomats and the Captain’s trailer parked nearby. The trees of Lyryma towered over them on one side, but despite their looming presence, spirits around the fire ran high. They always did, at the start of journeys like this. Even the coldest among them, Evelyne and Aaror, smiled as they listened to Eresh tell a story about Magistrate Biro tripping at Unity’s last spring ball.

As Eresh’s story reached its end, Trinity Jones— one of the diplomats— said, “Gareth, aren’t you a writer? Won’t you give us a story as well?”

Gareth jumped at suddenly being addressed, and Roman scooted closer to the circle around the fire. He knew what – who – Gareth wrote about and could fairly guess at the subject he’d choose.

“Oh, my writing is mostly nonfiction, you see,” Gareth said. “Not very suited to this sort of setting.”

“You study Egil, don’t you? I saw all those books in your library,” Thea said. “I bet you know an Egil story we don’t.”

At enthusiastic encouragement from the others— particularly Trinity and Eftychia— he finally conceded. “Oh, very well. I suppose I do know an Egil story or two.”

Across the fire, Leandros met Roman’s eye. The Captain sat between Gareth and Thea on a fallen log and had to shift back for room to pass his hand across his face, hiding a smile.

“Ah, I know,” Gareth finally said. “In honor of our mission, what about a story about Illyon? Or Ehloran, it was called in those days…”


It began as most Egil stories do, in the halls of Devikra Stormsong, the Great Western Oracle. She’d summoned Egil, as she did whenever her visions posed a problem that only he could fix. He strode into her gilded halls, the air heavy with the smell of incense and cleansing herbs, and bowed low.

“My lady,” he said, kissing the hand she offered to him, “How may I assist you?”

The Oracle waved a hand, and her servants left them alone. She reclined on a bed of lavish crimson pillows and regarded Egil carefully. “Heed my words well,” she said, “And do exactly as I ask. Lives depend on it.”

“Of course, my lady,” Egil said, for consequences always followed disobeying the Oracle.

“Go to the city of Ehloran. When you reach the white tree at the center of the city, travel north. Continue north and do not stop.”

“Why?” Egil asked, unable to stop the question.

Rather than answer, the Oracle said, “You will know when you have reached your destination.”

Egil halted his tongue, though more questions burned on its tip. This was the way of the Oracle’s prophecies—they were glimpses, snapshots. They created more questions than they answered. Egil had seen them fulfilled enough times to know that. He also knew that the Oracle was never wrong, so he bowed again and left to prepare for the journey. He made all haste to Ehloran, and he found the white tree, whose petals had just begun to fall.

He turned north and, on foot— as he knew not how far he had to journey— he began to walk. He walked up and down the hilly streets of Ehloran, always pointing due north. Many distractions threatened to break his pace as he walked. He passed through a market, and the smells of the foods there taunted him. A beautiful woman in glittering fabrics danced in the street to swift music, and he longed to stay and watch. When he reached a tall fence, he paused, but the time he would lose finding a way around would cost too much, so he climbed.

Finally, at the city gates, he was forced to stop when a man dressed in rich robes laden with jewelry fell at his feet.

“Please, Egil!” the man cried. “I am Trym Bech, leader of this city. I ran as soon as I heard you were here. My daughter Rylia has gone missing. Please, I need your help finding her. I fear something terrible has happened.”

Egil thought about the Oracle’s words. You will know when you have reached your destination. Egil did not yet know, so he said, “I am sorry, I cannot. If your daughter is still missing when I return, I will help you find her.”

Egil did not know that, the day before her disappearance, the Lady Rylia’s father announced she would be married. The intended prince, who’d come from Alfheim for the lady’s hand, was a kind man, but Rylia loved another, a young woman of humble birth. Confronted with the choice to marry someone she did not love or break her father’s heart, Rylia chose to flee into Lyryma. But distraught and alone, confused by the darkness, she lost her way. A witch who lived in the forest, a daughter of Tellaos, found her and spirited her to Tellaos’ realm, intending to feed the pretty young noble to the soulless beasts who roamed the dead forest there.

Egil stepped around Rylia’s father and left Ehloran, continuing down into the grassy fields of the Valley of Creae. He walked until he reached the borders of Lyryma, and then he walked further yet. He walked until his feet ached and his eyes drooped, and finally he reached his destination.

As the Oracle had said, he knew it immediately. On the strange, winding path before him, Egil saw the swirling of dark magics. Shadows swelled and sharp branches hung low, and Egil knew— for Egil knew many things about magic— that if he continued down this path, it would lead him to the place between worlds. Egil thought quickly. He pulled the winding vines from the tall Lyryma trees, tied a thousand together to make a rope. He tied one end of the rope to a tree root and the other around his waist, so that he would be able to find his way back.

Thus secured, Egil started down the path. Slowly and somehow all at once, the trees changed. He found himself in Tellaos’ dead forest, completely silent except for the sounds he himself made. No birds sang up high, no creeks bubbled in the distance, no wind rustled the decaying leaves under his feet. Egil continued through the forest until he heard a woman’s cries for help. He followed the sound until he found her weeping at the base of a twisted tree.

“Who are you?” she asked when she saw him.

“I am Egil. Your father sent me to find you,” answered Egil, and Rylia knew she was safe. She took Egil’s hand when he held it out and he helped her to stand.

With his rope made of vines, he began leading her back to their world, but a voice stopped them, crying out, “Stop! You will not take her! Stop!”

It was the witch who’d brought Rylia to this realm.

Egil instructed Rylia to follow the rope back. Then he turned to face the witch, and she shot lightning from her palms, meaning to kill him with her magic. The lightning struck Egil in the chest. The witch cackled, sure she had won, but when the lightning died Egil had not fallen, nor had he even moved. He had not been harmed.

“Are you a child of Tellaos, too?” the witch asked him. For if he had magic, he must have been born of the Guardians.

“I am Egil. My magic is my own,” Egil said. He drew his sword and pointed it at the witch. “I am taking the lady back to her home.”

“You cannot!” the witch wailed. “The beasts of the forest have been promised a meal! They will become violent if they do not have it!”

“Then you shall be their meal,” Egil said. Leaving the witch among the shifting shadows, he followed the reeds back to Lyryma Forest, where he found Lady Rylia waiting. Together, they returned to Ehloran, and the Lord of the city thanked Egil with a grand celebration.


When Gareth finished his story, everyone clapped but Roman. Roman stared into the fire, his mind far away. He closed his eyes and saw the shapes of the flames burned into his eyelids, multicolored and sharp. Among them he saw Devikra’s face, disappointed and pitying.

Gareth’s story had gotten it all wrong.

Roman hadn’t been working for Devikra long when this happened. It came not long after they’d met in Damael, not long after he’d fled Unity and spent years hiding in Lyryma. He hadn’t been any sort of functional person, then. He’d been damaged and angry, but Devikra had given him the chance to turn that into something good— to reclaim the title Unity had given him: Egil.

She had her premonitions, pointed him where to go to stop bad things from happening. She’d had a vision of the Lady Rylia being kidnapped, that part was true, but she’d ordered Roman not to go. Conscience heavy with the weight of his past sins, desperate to do anything he could to offset it, he’d gone anyway, and he’d found Rylia safe at home. It was his arrival, and the chaos that followed— Egil was beginning to be a recognizable name, by that point— that had created an opening for Rylia to be kidnapped. Finding her hadn’t been so easy as Gareth made it out to be. It had taken weeks and a heavy ransom, but Roman managed to track them. To get Rylia back, he had to kill them.

He’d returned to Devikra with more guilt added to the weight on his shoulders and the blood of petty extortionists on his clothes. It was then that Devikra had given him that look, half disappointed and half pitying.

“If I hadn’t gone, she might have died,” he’d told her.

She’d replied, “If you hadn’t gone, she wouldn’t have gone missing.”

Roman still couldn’t decide whether he regretted it. He’d learned not to play with fate, though, and he’d learned that the Oracle’s visions always came with tricks.

“Roman?”

Roman jumped, snapping back to the present to find Leandros and half the team staring at him. Leandros’ brow was creased with concern. How many times had he called Roman’s name?

“Huh?”

“I asked if you’d tell a story. I seem to remember you being quite good at it,” Leandros said.

Gareth joined him. “Yes, come on, Roman. Put that stage voice of yours to use.”

“Well,” Roman hedged, looking around at the expectant group. He didn’t much feel like storytelling, but of course Leandros knew that. It would probably help draw Roman out of his painful reminiscing, at least. Of course, Leandros knew that, too. “Alright, fine.”

Thea whooped, and a few others provided encouragements. Before Roman could start, Evelyne stood abruptly. She shot him a glare and with that, stormed off.

“Don’t mind her,” Ivor drawled, sitting back on his hands. He looked like he might fall asleep at any moment, but his gaze was at least vaguely directed toward Roman. “She’s always grumpy.”

“Right,” Roman said with a frown, watching Evelyne walk away. He forced himself to turn back to the first. “I’ll stick with Gareth’s theme and tell a story about Creae Valley. How many of you have heard Runderath’s story?”


Today, Calaidia knows peace – or at least something like it. It hasn’t always been like this. From the day the world was created until the end of the Great War, pain and violence and tragedy were all anyone knew. During the Great War, bloodshed became a way of life and death a price to be paid. We fought, we died, and we fought still.

Unity didn’t exist, then— there was no regulation, no government. No one could ever stay in power long enough to create one. As soon as the ones in charge showed weakness, someone else rose up to overthrow them. And behind it all was Tellaos, one of the Guardians Atiuh made to protect Calaidia. Tellaos believed the world would do better without its greedy, selfish mortals, so he pitted everyone against each other and stoked the flames of the Great War. 

And where were the other Guardians? Why weren’t they stopping him? No one had seen them since the Great War began, but one day, someone did.

Runderath was a young alfar Captain, a fierce fighter and a small-name hero. It happened during a rare stalemate – the suns hung crimson in the sky and Runderath picked his way through a bloody battlefield, searching the faces of the fallen for the men he’d lost. No other commanders bothered; there were too many dead, and the nameless faces were just that— memories that would fade. Runderath thought differently. Memories they may be, but they were memories he would honor.

Aside from a lone dragon flying off in the distance, its mournful keening echoing through the valley, Runderath believed himself the only one on the field, so he was surprised when he came upon two figures who stood with their backs to him.

“Ho there!” Runderath called, approaching them. “The alfar army will be coming through soon! They won’t be happy to see outsiders on their land, so you’d best go, for your own sake.”

The figures turned toward Runderath, and Runderath stopped short, the hairs on the back of his neck standing. The figure on the right, a human in black armor with silver streaked hair, kept his eyes on the horizon. He wiped them like he’d been crying. 

When the other turned to look at him, Runderath saw that the ground beneath her feet was charred. Her eyes, flat black with specks that glowed like smoldering sparks of a dying flame, bored into him. Her skin, golden-red like a sunset, was covered in swirling patterns that flickered, twisted, and glowed like tongues of fire. Long wings, shimmering and incandescent like a dragonfly’s, stretched behind her.

“Why would you warn us?” she asked. “You are alfar.”

The man beside her finally met Runderath’s gaze. Though he looked not nearly as alien as his companion, he unsettled Runderath more. He was solid, weighty, eternal. His eyes had seen many things and the weight of them all shrouded him like a cloak.

“I am not cruel. I would not see two nonviolent creatures harmed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Runderath.

“And how do you know we are nonviolent?” the woman asked with a dangerous smile.

“I am unarmed; you are not. You could have killed me on sight.”

The man inclined his head in acknowledgment. “And what are you doing here alone, unarmed?”

“Searching for my fallen men, that I may administer last rites,” Runderath answered. He had been through so much, felt so much pain and seen so much death, that he no longer feared either. So he asked, “And you?”

The man and the woman looked at each other and, at once, began to circle Runderath in slow, concentric circles.

“We are trying to decide how to stop our brother,” said the woman.

“We cannot oppose him directly – both out of love for him and because of the laws our God laid upon us,” the man continued.

“But we can no longer stand by while he destroys the world our Father made for you,” the woman said, passing in front of Runderath in her circling.

“Tellaos must die,” the man said.

“If he does, the war will end.”

The man stopped in front of Runderath. “We need a champion who will fight him in our name. I look into your soul and I see light, Runderath id Kamar. Will you be our champion?”

Runderath opened his mouth and found he could speak no words, for he finally knew whose presence he stood in. Atuos and Ellaes, Atiuh’s Guardians. He bowed by way of answer, and when he straightened, Atuos smiled.

Ellaes pressed a kiss that burned like fire to Runderath’s forehead and said, “With this I give you a taste of our magic, that you may meet Tellaos as an equal.”

Atuos drew his sword, made of the same fathomless black as his armor, and offered it up to Runderath. “With this, I give you our blessing. Face Tellaos with courage and heart, and you will not fail.”

Runderath took the sword and felt some light emotion rise in his chest. He realized that it was hope. “Thank you. I will not fail,” he repeated.

“Be brave, Runderath. We will be with you in spirit,” said Ellaes. With that, they were gone, vanishing in the time it took Runderath to blink. Without the weight of Atuos’ sword in his hand, or the fire of Ellaes’ magic in his heart, Runderath would have feared he’d imagined them.

Runderath did not return to his army’s camp. Instead, he turned east and began the long journey to Tellaos’ mountain. On this mountain was a castle the third Guardian loved most of all, which sat overlooking a bloody battlefield. Its walls were darker than the nights in Rhycr and stronger than the scales of the dragon who lived inside. Anyone who entered— aside from the great serpent himself— never left.

This castle stands today, in the heart of Orean. This is the bloody history of Creae Valley.

Runderath fought his way through the valley to the base of the mountain. He climbed it, Atuos’ sword strapped to his back, and burst into Tellaos’ castle. He climbed the winding stairs to Tellaos’ watchtower, confident in himself and his mission. There, Runderath faced the large black dragon.

“Tellaos!” he called, “I have come to end your reign! No longer will the people of Calaidia fall prey to your games!”

The dragon’s eyes widened. He laughed, loud and terrible. “Is that so, little hero? What’s to stop me from killing you where you stand?”

“I have magic, that I may meet you as an equal, and I have this sword, a blessing from those who would see you defeated.”

Tellaos stopped laughing. He knew those words, and suddenly he recognized Ellaes’ magic in Runderath. For the first time, he felt fear. In his rage, he blew a jet of flame at Runderath. But when the flames cleared, Runderath stood in the same spot, unharmed. Runderath raised Atuos’ sword and charged.

On the battlefield below, soldiers of every species paused their fighting to gaze in wonder at Tellaos’ castle, which rumbled and shook in great waves. Then, the dragon’s watchtower began to crumble, and all anyone could do was watch as it collapsed, leaving the southwest corner of the castle open and exposed. As if a spell was lifted, all dropped their weapons and began to cheer. They knew, in their hearts, that Tellaos was dead.

Later that day, a party went up the mountain to search the rubble. Stories were already circulating about the hero who’d been seen fighting his way to the mountain, and they hoped to find him alive so they may thank him. But Neither Runderath nor Tellaos were to be found. 

From that day on, the Story of Runderath the Mighty, the hero who stripped Tellaos of his power but perished in the process, was told across the content.


A few around the fire began to clap, expecting Roman had reached the end of his story, but Roman held a hand up to stop them. “It’s not finished.”


The night after Tellaos’ defeat, while the people down below celebrated, the great dragon clawed his way out of the rubble and found two figures waiting.

“Your plan failed,” Tellaos snarled at them, “I’m not dead.”

“We did not mean to kill you,” Ellaes said. Soft flames flickered across her skin, their glow the only light on the dark mountainside. “Only to punish you, and humiliate you.”

Atuos took Ellaes’ hand and said, in a voice harder than diamonds, “And now, to bind you.”

Together, Atuos and Ellaes bound Tellaos’ magic within him, and they trapped him in a weak mortal form so he would no longer have power over the people of Calaidia. Then, with heavy hearts, they denounced him as a Guardian and left him to live the rest of his mortal life alone.

When Roman finally fell silent, Eresh blurted, “That’s not how the story goes! Tellaos can’t live!”

Roman stood and stretched. “It’s the story I’ve always been told. You really think it’s so easy to kill a Guardian?”

“Well—,”

“Either way, it’s just a story,” Roman said with a shrug. “I’m tired. I think I’m going to retire for the evening.”

While he was walking away from the fire, Roman paused at the sound of his name. He turned to find Gareth approaching, his shadowy form silhouetted by the fire behind him.

“What did you think of my story?” he asked.

Roman raised an eyebrow. “It was fine, I guess. I told you, I don’t really like Egil stories.”

“Yes, I’ve been wondering about that. I think I might know why.”

Roman turned away. “You’re probably right, but I don’t want to talk about this now.”

Gareth huffed. He was practically vibrating with excitement and did a bad job of hiding it. “If I leave you alone now, can I ask about it more later?”

“I can’t help but feel I’d be breaking your heart if I said no,” Roman said with a small smile. “I’ll think about it.” 


Part Two

An orinian woman with glowing scars carved into her skin stood on the bridge to Unity. She pressed herself against the stone wall to better look down into the swirling water below. For longer than she could remember, she’d been chased by something, a feeling she couldn’t name. A creeping feeling, like the brush of fingers on the back of her neck, or shadows shifting at the corner of her vision. The black waves reminded her of the feeling— angry, insistent, inviting. They called to her, just like the grasping darkness.

But she couldn’t give in to it. There was a closer call, even more insistent. It was near. She pushed herself away from the rail and turned to face it.

A man walked across the bridge toward her, the hard soles of his snakeskin boots clicking on the cobblestones with each deliberate step. He looked human –  handsome in a broad, hard-edged sort of way. His pupils, sideways and rectangular like a goat’s, were on the Unity clock tower above and behind Mercy.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked as he neared. There was no one beside the two of them on the bridge. He looked at Mercy and smiled, his teeth too many and too sharp. If Mercy’s heart still worked, the sight would have stopped it. The man’s smile dropped as he took in the fading glow behind Mercy’s skin, and he cupped her cheeks between his hands. “Oh, I’ve left you alone for too long. You’re almost out. Mercy, are you alright? Are you still with me?”

Mercy shivered and covered his hands with her own. His hands, the only things keeping her tethered in this world. Instead of answering, she asked, “Why are we here, love? Why did we come to this awful place?”

“Mercy,” he warned, voice low. She pouted. It made him lean down to kiss her forehead. “I know it’s awful, but I needed to see it, just once. I needed to see it before I could destroy it,” he explained, softly. He looked up at the clock tower again. “The Guardians’ pride and joy, their solution to everything. It meant so much to them. To him.”

He took her hand and began pulling her toward the Island. “Come, let’s get a closer look.”

They hadn’t moved more than twenty feet before Mercy pulled her hand back, saying, “I can’t.” When he kept walking, she called, “Tellaos! We can see it from here, darling. Please, I don’t want to go any further.”

“Yes,” Tellaos said, his voice like the slither of a snake through tall grass. “Yes, you’re right. Mercy, come here, and then we won’t have to move any closer. I swear it.”

It was then that the two of them noticed a woman approaching from the Island. She was on the older end of middle-aged and she carried herself rigidly, slowing as she approached Mercy and Tellaos. Tellaos, who stood closest to her, she eyed suspiciously, her eyes lingering on the black scales peeking over the top of his shirt collar.

Tellaos began to scratch the scales. He hadn’t wanted to be seen, Mercy knew. She looked between her lover and the woman with wide eyes. “Who are you, then?” Tellaos asked impatiently.

The woman blinked at him, taken aback. “Moira Ranulf, one of your representatives. I could have you thrown in prison for speaking to me that way.”

Tellaos sneered. “You’re no representative of mine. Mercy, would you…?”

Mercy approached, and Moira looked at her for the first time. She took in Mercy’s orinian features, the glow of her birthmarks, and something like recognition flitted across her face. “You’re the one the Nochdvors saw.”

Tellaos held a hand up to stop Mercy, and Mercy stopped. “Pardon?” he asked. “What was that?”

Moira was already hastening to back away, though. “I’m calling the guard,” she warned.

Tellaos sighed, then signaled Mercy to continue. He looked away as Mercy killed the woman, cringed when he heard her bones snap. He began scratching his arms, the small mortal body Atuos and Ellaes trapped him in not enough to contain the emotions swirling inside of him.

“I hate having to do that,” he said.

Mercy didn’t respond, instead staring curiously down at the human.

“Mercy, was there any chance someone in that throne room survived? When you grabbed Nochdvor?”

Mercy frowned, her delicate features twisting in thought. “I don’t remember. The magic was too overwhelming.”

“We’re going to have to find out.” Tellaos continued to scratch, then stamped his foot. “Damn Atuos! Damn Ellaes! Damn this body! Mercy, come here.”

Mercy approached, but when Tellaos held a hand out to her, she skittered back. “No, wait. Tellaos, I don’t want to feel it again so soon. There’s something wrong with it.”

Tellaos kept his hand out. “I won’t force you, Mercy, but if you do this one last thing for me, everything will get better. I have a plan, but I need your help. I need my body back, love.”

Mercy reluctantly approached. “What do you want me to do?”

Tellaos whispered the answer in her ear. When she nodded, eyes wide, he said, “Now, open up.”

Tellaos put something in Mercy’s mouth. Mercy didn’t get much of a look at it before he did, but it was insubstantial like smoke, yet solid enough that he could hold it between his fingers. It was alive— alive, but not living. It that writhed and squirmed in his fingers like an angry black centipede.

The warped, twisted power of the thing hit Mercy immediately, spreading warmth all the way down to her toes. The glowing in her veins flared bright, so bright that she watched Tellaos’ pupils shrink. She’d been cold earlier, but this was too hot. It was too much, not enough. Burning, freezing. She couldn’t contain it. She must.

Tellaos watched her through it all. Finally, she breathed in deep. That other call, the one that echoed the crashing black waves, felt much further away.

“There you go,” Tellaos murmured. “Perfect, Mercy. It’s almost over now.”

He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him. She raised an arm, used the magic Tellaos had given her just as she had when she’d stolen Amos Nochdvor away.

Around them, Unity’s bridge began to collapse. It started at the ends, crumbling inward, the heavy rocks falling down to the water. The bridge tore itself apart stone by stone, but the small patch Tellaos and Mercy stood on remained intact, hovering above the water and supported by nothing.

Tellaos laughed, pulled Mercy tighter, and kissed her. Mercy snapped her fingers and like that, they disappeared as the last of the bridge fell.


Part Three

Aleksir Bardon sat stiller than he had in his life, eyes wide and fixed on the white dragon in the center of the room. The dragon was bowed low, unable or unwilling to look at the recipient of his message. But Aleksir looked at her. She sat upright and rigid, her face an impassive mask. Aleksir had worked with her long enough to recognize things others would not, though— the subtle pursing of her full lips, the flare of her nostrils. She was angry.

“What did you just say?” she asked.

The dragon bowed, if possible, lower. His long snout nearly touched the ground. “Unity Bridge has collapsed, my lady. No one was harmed, but one Representative seems to be missing. I flew here as soon as I heard the news.”

“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” she said. All around her, her courtiers whispered and shifted. The looks they shared with each other all held the same question: Why hadn’t the Oracle foreseen this?

Devikra Stormsong stood and the whispers fell silent. “I predicted this long ago, of course,” she lied, with so much confidence that even Aleksir nearly believed her despite knowing better. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing even I can do to prevent natural disasters such as this, and I hadn’t seen when the incident would occur. I am glad no one got hurt. Please, someone see our messenger to a spare room, and get him whatever comforts he requests. I feel another vision coming on, so I’m afraid I must retire to my chambers. Aleksir?”

Aleksir followed Devikra out of the hall. Once it was just the two of them, Devikra began to pace, rubbing her temples as she passed back and forth in front of Aleksir, who remained silent and watched her warily.

“The entire bridge?” she hissed. “Bridges don’t just collapse!”

“What do you think happened?” Aleksir asked.

“I’m more concerned about why we didn’t see it coming. Aleksir, dear, will you go ask Wil about it? I have something I need to do first, but I’ll meet you upstairs.”

“Yeah, sure. You alright, Dev? You seem sort of…worried,” Aleksir said. It was out of character for her.

Devikra took one of Aleksir’s hands in both of her own and kissed it. “I’m fine. Don’t you worry about me – I’ll be with you shortly.”

“Sure.”

Reluctantly, Aleksir left Devikra standing in the hallway. He wove through the palace and down long, winding stairways and finally found himself in a cool basement. He knocked on a heavy door before entering and finding himself in a large room, everything about it orchestrated to make the space comfortable for the Oracle. 

The Oracle herself sat in the room’s small kitchen space, and Aleksir dove to catch the door before it slammed, instead guiding it shut with just a soft click.

Aleksir slipped his shoes off, let the room’s calming atmosphere do what it was supposed to do. The colors were cool, manifesting in lots of soft, heavy fabrics— sofas that looked like they’d swallow you whole, pillows on the sofas and grounds and anywhere they could feasibly go, paisley patterned curtains that diffused the suns’ rays and set the room alight with a cool blue glow. Aleksir padded over to the small kitchenette.

“Wilhara,” he called gently. The Oracle ignored him, tapping her charcoal against the counter and squinting at the sketchbook in front of her. “Wilhara?”

When she still didn’t respond, Aleksir said more firmly, “Wil.”

Wilhara looked up, apparently surprised to find Aleksir standing there.

An alfar with orinian blood, Wilhara inherited the graceful qualities of both races. Until her, Aleksir had thought that alfar came in translucent, slightly-not-pale, or almost-tan, but her skin was dark and her hair almost white – darker than Devikra’s, a natural gray instead. Because of her mixed blood, her ears were pointed and expressive like an orinian’s— almost expressive as her eyes, always tired and frightened. The set of her mouth, in contrast, made her look constantly annoyed.

Aleksir knew she was generally neither tired nor frightened, but almost always annoyed. He was very fond of her. Wilhara was the true visionary behind the Oracle’s persona. Devikra taking public credit was a front that worked well for both of them— they knew their strengths and their weaknesses. For Wilhara, dealing with people was one of the latter.

“Good morning, Aleksir.” Wilhara spared Aleksir an effusive smile and the time it took to sip her tea, then went back to studying her drawing book. Aleksir recognized the bitter smell of that brew. It never meant good things for Wilhara’s headspace.

“Did you have a vision?” Aleksir asked.

After a minute of consternated silence, Wilhara asked, “Hmm?”

Aleksir glanced at the drawing book, where Wilhara recorded her visions. It was easier to draw than describe, she’d found, because her visions usually contained an array of people and places she’d never met nor visited. She drew her visions, and Devikra, who’d seen more of the world, interpreted. Aleksir provided the moral support and ran the confidential errands.

“Are you having a bad day?” Aleksir asked, rephrasing the question.

“Oh, very. The visions won’t seem to stop.”

“What do you mean?” Aleksir asked.

“I’ve had a dozen today, at least.”

“A dozen?” Aleksir asked. It was usually considered huge if Wilhara had more than three visions in a week. Aleksir pointed to her book. “May I?”

“I suppose you might as well.” Wilhara pushed the book at Aleksir. “I don’t know what any of it means.”

Aleksir flipped through the newest pages with a frown. There were a lot, and they all seemed to be similar— or at least related— to each other. There was Orean, wonderfully sketched, with a dragon flying above it. The next page was almost the same— same city, same view— but things were peaceful. In the next, everything was on fire and a giant smudge blocked out a third of a page. Aleksir peered closer— not a smudge, but frantic scribbles. That explained the charcoal all over Wil’s fingers and face, then.

“It was like living shadow,” Wilhara said quietly. “I didn’t know how to draw it.”

The next page made Aleksir gasp. It was Unity Bridge, falling into the water. “When did you do this one?” he asked Wilhara.

Not picking up on his urgency, Wilhara regarded it and tugged at her skirts, smoothing them out only to tug them into wrinkles again. “This morning, I think. No— wait, yes. Yes, right after breakfast.”

Aleksir stared at her. According to the dragon’s report, that would’ve been around the time that it happened. He turned the page again and blinked in surprise. It was Egil— a dozen sketches of Egil smiling, frowning, crying. His eyes, his mouth, his hands. There were others, too— a scarred alfar, an orinian girl, a dancer – no, an actress? Then Aleksir stilled. There was even a drawing of himself in here. He looked up at Wil. “What is this?”

Wilhara rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know. I just kept seeing your faces, one after the other, and the visions are so blurry. They change so fast. That’s not the last of them.”

Aleksir turned the page again, then quickly shut the book. He felt like he might be sick. “That’s impossible. How did he…?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t see. I just see him over and over again like that. I don’t know! I—,”

Aleksir grabbed Wil’s hands and rubbed soothing circles into the backs of them. “Hey, hey, it’s alright. We’ll talk to Devikra about it. I’m sure she’ll have answers.”

Wilhara nodded. “Yes. Okay. Where is she?”

“She went to— Oh, shit. Wil, I meant to tell you. Unity’s bridge is gone.”

“The bridge is gone,” she repeated slowly. “Like my vision.”

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“This morning.”

“But I saw it this morning!” She shook her head. She clenched her hands in her skirts then grabbed her head. “I usually get more warning than that! First, I missed Nochdvor, now this. What’s happening to me?”

Aleksir shrugged and was saved from having to answer when the door flew open. It struck the wall, and Wilhara flinched at the sound. Devikra stormed in, all righteous fury and terrible beauty, looking significantly more tired than she had downstairs. When she noticed Aleksir and Wilhara staring, the tension drained from her like she’d sprung a leak. “Wilhara, dear, I wasn’t sure you’d be up. I’m sorry about the noise.”

“I understand. Aleksir told me what happened.”

Devikra joined them at the table and dropped into the seat across from Wilhara. “How strange this all is. Wil, you didn’t see anything about this, did you? Something we might have missed?”

Without prompting, Aleksir opened the drawing book up to the page with the falling bridge and showed Devikra.

“When—?”

“This morning,” Wilhara said.

Without looking up, sensing more than seeing Wilhara’s distressed look, Devikra said, “Don’t fret, Wil. There’s nothing wrong on your end. I think I know what’s happening.”

“You do?” Aleksir asked.

“Wilhara is rosanin. According to the old stories, rosanin abilities don’t work on the Guardians.”

“The Guardians?” Aleksir asked. He waved a hand. “Like, Ellaes and them?”

“Ellaes, Tellaos, and Atuos, yes.”

“But they’re not real.”

“They’re as real as you or I, dear.”

“It’s true,” Wilhara said. “I forgot about— I mean, it’s happened before. Tellaos has changed my visions.” She met Devikra’s eye, then quickly looked away. “It was a long time ago.”

Devikra nodded. “I’m afraid it’s Tellaos again. Your visions have been acting up since Nochdvor’s kidnapping, right? I fear he had a hand in that, too.”

“What does he want?” Aleksir asked.

“That’s a good question. I could only theorize.”

“So if Wil’s visions can change, what about the other ones she drew today?”

Devikra looked sharply at Wil, who passed the book back to her. Devikra spent more time on each drawing than Aleksir had, her eyebrows drawing closer together with each page she turned. Normally, Wilhara’s drawings were clear and logical, not frantic and chaotic like these. Devikra ran her fingers over two almost identical drawings of Aleksir— identical except for his expressions, one happy, one anguished.

She said, “Your visions are so inconsistent because you’re seeing the different possibilities. Every time Tellaos changes course, he changes the futures you see. He must have been doing a lot of thinking this morning.”

Wilhara flipped to the page of Egil drawings and tapped at it insistently.

Devikra eyed the pages, then Wilhara. “You want me to help him?”

Wilhara sighed, relieved, and nodded. She turned the page. “This was the only one that was clear.

Devikra studied this last image for a long time. Wilhara fidgeted; Aleksir looked away. He didn’t like Egil much. He couldn’t get over their first uncomfortable meeting. But still, Egil had been one of his heroes. He didn’t want to see the man like that.

“I’m sorry,” Wilhara said. “That was the only one that was clear.”

“It’s not your fault, Wil,” Devikra said. “I have to warn him.”

Devikra stood, and Aleksir and Wilhara shared a look. “Will that help?” Aleksir asked. “I thought there was no changing Wil’s visions.”

“With Tellaos getting involved, every future Wil sees is subject to change. Aleksir, are you coming?”

“To see Egil?” Aleksir asked. “I dunno, he’s sort of creepy.”

Devikra gave him a strange look. “How so?”

“I dunno, just…not normal. I swear, the first time we talked, his eyes turned all black like some sort of monster. There was just something…wrong about him. Dev?”

Devikra had gone still and was staring at Aleksir in horror. “What did you just say?”

“I— what?”

“We have to go. Now,” Devikra announced. “Wil, you’ll be alright while we’re gone, won’t you? We’ll be back soon.”

After they left, Wilhara continued to stare at the final drawing, the drawing of Egil laying dead among the ruins of Orean. She ran her fingers lightly over the charcoal figure and sent a quick prayer to Atiuh. 

Maybe Devikra could still prevent this.

Chapter 24

“Come along, Ofelia,” Isobel said, holding the sleepy five-year-old’s hand as they walked along. It was a foggy morning, brisk and still. The first sun had risen only half an hour ago and Gallontea was quiet; they passed only a few others on their way.

“You really don’t have to come all this way, Isobel,” Gareth said.

“We’re seeing you to the city gates,” Isobel said. “It’s the least we can do. Who knows when we’ll see you next.”

Roman, beside them, stayed quiet. When they reached the city gates and Gareth said goodbye to Isobel and Ofelia, he kept his distance. The family had many of these small, intimate moments. Watching them made his heart hurt in a confusingly warm sort of way.

He stiffened in surprise when Isobel hugged him goodbye, whispering in his ear, “Promise you’ll keep him safe.”

“I promise,” Roman whispered back before they broke apart. When they did, Isobel had tears in her eyes.

She wiped them quickly, turning to Ofelia and holding out her hand. “Come on, Fe. Time to go home; we’ll see your father again soon.”

Roman and Gareth watched them disappear back into the city smog. When they were fully out of sight, Roman tapped Gareth’s arm. “The others are waiting. Let’s go.”

Outside the city walls, three half-loaded wagons and horses for the diplomats waited. There were no Unity or Alfheim symbols or banners on any of it, nothing to give away the official nature of their mission. The group looked like any other group of merchants or travelers preparing for a journey.

Thea saw them first, holding her skirts and jogging over, her smile tired but excited.

“Leandros and I have been here for hours already,” she explained with a breathless smile. “It didn’t quite feel real the other day, but it sure does now. Thank you for arranging this opportunity, Mr. Ranulf.”

“Why are you thanking me?” Gareth asked.

“I’ve never left Gallontea, but I’ve always wanted to. Now, I finally have an excuse. Oh! Here, hand me your bags.”

While Thea helped toss Gareth’s bags into one of the wagons, Roman looked around. “This isn’t everyone, is it, Thea?”

“No, I think we’re just waiting on the security team.”

“I forgot you don’t know anyone yet. Let’s see…those are the other diplomats, over there,” Gareth said, nodding at a small group near one of the other wagons. He pointed out Cathwright, a blue dragon and some sort of barrister, Trinity Jones, a blue-scaled, slippery nympherai trained in political negotiations, and Pierce Williams, their wilderness guide. Then there was Eresh Ochoa, speaking in urgent, hushed tones to Leandros.

Gareth excused himself to speak to the other diplomats.

“Hey, Thea,” Roman said in an undertone, “What do you see when you look at them all?”

“Nothing suspicious,” Thea said. “All the diplomats are reserved, but it’s just anxiety.”

“And Mr. Ochoa?” Roman asked.

“Him, I’m not sure about. There’s something flickering under the surface. His motives aren’t what they seem, but they’re harmless, at least.”

“Could he be doing something for Unity?” Roman asked.

“Maybe,” Thea said, not sounding sure.

“Well, there’s plenty of time to dig deeper on the journey. Hey, Leandros!” Roman called, walking up to their little circle.

Annoyance flashed across Leandros’ expression. “Ah, Roman. I was hoping you might oversleep and miss our departure.”

“And lose out on a chance to travel with you again? Not a chance.”

Somehow, Leandros’ expression soured further.

“Oh, you’re Mr. Hallisey! It’s a pleasure. I hear Moira Ranulf personally asked you be added to the team,” Eresh said.

“So he’s alright to be here?” Thea asked, having followed Roman over. At Roman’s questioning look, she explained, “Eresh is angry that Leandros brought me on.”

“No! I’m not angry,” Eresh said, waving his hands. “Was it inconsiderate not to even consult me on the matter? Or to add someone to the team on such short notice? Perhaps. I would have appreciated being warned in advance, so I could have factored having an extra person here into my logistics calculations, but I suppose it’s far too late for that now.”

“I’ll be sure to warn you, next time,” Leandros said.

“You know, I hope that you do! Because it almost feels like you don’t trust me to help you, if you’re finding an assistant! Who even is she? She’s no one!”

Thea flinched.

“What’s Eresh worked up about this time?” a low, drawling voice asked. A slouched, languid man joined the group and slung an arm around Eresh’s shoulder. This time, it was Eresh’s turn to flinch away. The man was dressed in heavy leather and wore a pistol and a wickedly curved knife at his hips.

Two other members of the security team came up behind him – Eftychia Jones, draped in bright fabrics and weaponless, as far as could be seen, and a broad, scowling man with a bow and quiver strapped on his back.

“Ivor! I’m not worked up over anything!” Eresh said. “I was just – ah, Ms. Corscia, you’re here, too.”

Thea jumped in surprise when she noticed there a woman standing beside her where there was none before. Evelyne Corscia didn’t look her way, only frowned at Eresh and crossed her arms. As she did, the muscles in her arms shifted, highlighting scars from old battles. She stood nearly a head shorter than Thea but somehow took up far more space.

“We’re ready for final inventory checks, if you’re done here, Eresh,” she said, her voice gentle as ever.

“Yes, of course,” Eresh said.

When he tried to leave, Evelyne held out an arm to cut him off. “Apologize to the girl, first.”

Eresh looked like he’d been slapped. “I’m sorry?”

“She’s Leandros’ assistant. He trusts her. He got permission from the Magistrates to add her to the team. It doesn’t matter who she is, beyond that.”

“Evie,” Eftychia said with a pout, “Go easy on Eresh. I’m sure he didn’t mean any harm.”

Evelyne only raised an eyebrow at Eresh.

“My apologies, Ms. Fairfax,” Eresh said hastily. “Big day, you know. Lots to worry about. Didn’t mean to take that out on you.”

“You’re forgiven,” Thea said. Eresh nodded and, with that, left to perform their inventory checks. Eftychia skipped off after him.

“Tell me if he bothers you again,” Evelyne said, looking at Thea. “Or just give him a fright yourself. It’s not difficult. I’m sure you’ve got it in you.”

“Oh! Yeah. Yes. That was…” Thea stammered, then trailed off with a cough. While she stared at Evelyne, everyone waited expectantly. She finally managed, “Inspirational. You’re very kind.”

Evelyne blinked, surprised, then smiled. It softened the harsh planes of her face, almost overshadowing the hawklike set of her gaze.

“Thank you for intervening, Ms. Corscia,” Leandros said.

Evelyne looked at him, her gaze then moving to Roman beside him. She stiffened, eyes narrowing and lips pursing. Roman only smiled back, politely confused.

“Ms. Corscia?” Leandros asked. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Evelyne said, a muscle in her jaw jumping. She backed away slowly, not dropping her gaze from Roman’s until she finally turned away. “I’m going to help Eresh.”

Ivor whistled low once Evelyne was out of earshot. “You two have some sort of history?”

Everyone was looking at Roman, now, who shook his head. “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”

“You’re the new one— Hallisey, right?” Ivor asked. “What do you do on this team, exactly?”

Roman opened his mouth to answer, but Leandros cut in instead. “He knows a thing or two about Orean. Ivor, Aaror, can you go help Eresh and Evelyne? I’d like to be able to leave as soon as possible, and we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other on the road.”

Ivor saluted, heading over to one of the wagons with Aaror on his heels. They both shot Roman curious looks as they passed, but fortunately didn’t ask any more questions. When they were gone, Leandros eyed Roman and asked, “Thea, can you tell when people are lying?”

“I’m not lying!” Roman said.

“I didn’t think you were, Roman, it only made me curious,” Leandros said.

“I sometimes can, I sometimes can’t. It depends on why they’re lying. But if Roman’s lying, I can’t tell,” Thea said, staring over at where Eresh and the security team were working. Her cheeks were faintly flushed.

Roman groaned.

Leandros hid a smile. “Good. We have a long journey ahead of us and you’ll be in close proximity to Ms. Corscia all the way.” He sighed. “I’d best go help Eresh as well. Everyone’s here and we really do need to leave.”

When Leandros was gone, Thea finally looked over at Roman. “So what’s the story?”

“Hm?” Roman asked.

“You were definitely lying,” Thea said.

Roman took a deep breath. “Thank you for not telling Leandros.”

“You’re trying to protect her,” Thea said. “I can see it. That’s the only reason I didn’t tell.”

“I’ll tell you the story later,” Roman said.

“Liar,” Thea said, smiling.

Roman smiled back. “Only sometimes.”

Less than half an hour, Unity’s team finally left on their journey. The winding road away from Gallontea led them on toward to Lyryma forest – and beyond that, Orean.


A/N: Thank you for reading this far, and let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter!

Chapter 23

Leandros lowered his hood as he reached the porch of the Ranulf’s rented flat. He risked a glance behind him, at the rain beating steadily down on the dark cobblestone, washing it clean. He squinted against the rain, checking for any suspicious movement, but no one seemed to be minding him at all, too busy scrambling to get inside.

After he rang the bell, one of the Ranulf’s servants arrived to take his cloak and lead him up to the sitting room, where both Gareth and Isobel waited. Isobel was ready for him this time, medical supplies laid out on the table beside the sofa.

Leandros had to step around a large suitcase in the doorway to approach them. “You’re ready to leave, I see,” he noted.

Gareth eyed the suitcase. “Physically, at least.”

“You look tired, Leandros,” Isobel said. She knelt beside the couch, same as last time, sterilizing a pair of tweezers.

Leandros was tired. Exhausted, even. “I’m quite alright,” he said, “But thank you for your concern.”

Isobel looked like she didn’t quite believe him. “You’re welcome to rest here a while before you head back to the Island,” she offered. “You look like you could use it.”

“There’s too much work to be done, I’m afraid.”

Isobel pursed her lips. “Alright. Well, let’s get a look at those stitches. Take off your shirt and lay on the sofa, here.”

Leandros did as she said, carefully laying his things out on a chair before settling on the sofa. Isobel washed his wound, then prodded at it with cold fingers for a minute, tutting to herself. “You haven’t been careful.”

“I’ve tried,” Leandros said. “It’s difficult.”

“It’ll be more so when you’re on the road. These won’t be ready to come out for at least a week. You’re full-blooded alfar, aren’t you? Longer, then, given the way your kind heals. Is there a surgeon on the team?”

“Not officially, but most of the security team has medical training.”

“One of them will have to help you, then,” Isobel said, starting to push herself to her feet. Leandros held out a hand to help her. “Gareth, should I go get—?”

“Yes, thank you,” Gareth said, pointedly avoiding Leandros’ gaze. When Isobel was gone from the room, he said, “I’m terribly sorry about this, Leandros. I hope you won’t be too angry with me.”

Leandros sat up, eyes going to where his coat was folded over the chair, his gun hidden in an inner pocket. “Sorry about what, Gareth?”

“It’s nothing terrible,” Gareth said, waving his hands, “I promise. It’s just, I’ve listened to him whine for days about how you’re avoiding him, and I can’t take it anymore.”

Leandros heard voices coming down the hall, and he groaned when he recognized the loudest of them. “You promised he wouldn’t be here.”

“I’m terribly sorry, but you need to talk to him, you know, and preferably before we leave for Orean.”

“I can hear you, you know. I don’t whine,” Roman said, appearing in the doorway with a stranger at his heels. He perched on the arm of Leandros’ couch before Leandros could get up. “How do you feel? How are the stitches? Are they healing alright? You’re being careful, aren’t you? What did Isobel say?”

“Breathe, Roman,” Gareth said.

Leandros cringed at the already-yellowing bruise on Roman’s cheek. He half-sat up and reached out to touch it before he realized what he was doing, then quickly folded his hands in his lap. “That doesn’t look pleasant.”

“What, the bruise? I more than deserved it.”

Leandros looked away. “Don’t do that. You didn’t deserve anything. I’m still angry with you, of course, but I shouldn’t have done that,” he said softly. He knew too well how the people closest to Roman were always hurting him.

“Oh,” Roman said, staring at Leandros with wide eyes.

Leandros couldn’t meet his gaze, so he studied the bruise a moment longer and sighed. “It’s times like these I wish I was sapien. You heal so quickly.”

Roman’s hand ghosted over the bruise. “I think that’s just me. How are your stitches?”

“Fine,” Leandros said. He smirked and began to tug down the bandages. “Would you like to see?”

“No!”

“Are you sure?”

Roman made a face. “Stop it.”

Leandros realized he was smiling and quickly stopped. “Hand me my shirt, would you? I have better things to do than sit around and chat.”

“Leandros…”

“Whatever you’re about to say, Roman, think it over, and then don’t say it.”

“Wow, you weren’t kidding about them,” the girl who’d come in behind Roman said to Gareth.

Leandros frowned at her. She met his glare with a single raised eyebrow and said, “Should Mr. Ranulf and I leave you alone to talk? I don’t mind waiting in the dining room.”

“No, no that’s alright. Wait just a moment longer, Thea,” Roman said. “Leandros, I found out who attacked you.”

Leandros stood, cringing when it jostled his stitches. “How? Who?”

“He was part of the Golden Rose, seeking a fifty triem bounty placed by some member of the Alfheim Council.”

Leandros stilled. “Fifty triems? None of them have that kind of money on their own. There must be several of them in on it.”

“Aren’t you from Alfheim? You don’t seem very surprised that they want you dead,” the girl said.

Leandros narrowed his eyes at her. “Roman, who is this?”

“I’ll explain in just a second, I promise,” Roman said, stepping between Leandros and the girl. “Trust me.”

Leandros looked away, a muscle jumping in his jaw. To the girl, he said, “If you knew how they felt about me, you wouldn’t be surprised, either. They’ve never trusted me. A good deal of that is thanks to my father, but I suppose I can take some of the blame. I’ve made many mistakes in my youth, following this one being the worst of them,” Leandros nodded Roman’s way.

“Oh, come on. We had fun together, didn’t we?” Roman asked.

“Don’t be cute. Youre the reason they want me dead.”

“What does Roman have to do with this?” Gareth asked, looking between Roman and Leandros with furrowed brows.

“Oh, that’s all in the past!” Roman said, a bright grin on his face. “Whatever the reason, Leandros, I made sure no one’s going to go near that bounty anytime soon. Also, I found you a personal guard! Gareth helped.”

Leandros scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t need a guard.”

You don’t be ridiculous. I think it’s obvious that you do.”

Leandros relented, pursing his lips. “And where is this guard?”

“Here!” the girl said, holding a finger up. “I would have introduced myself earlier, but you were…otherwise distracted. Ms. Theodosia Fairfax, at your service.”

Leandros blinked at the girl. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-five,” Theodosia said.

The alfar looked at Gareth. “Is that supposed to be a lot?”

Gareth shrugged. “For sapiens? It’s enough.”

“I have a young face,” Theodosia said, standing taller. She had large green eyes and brown hair piled into a messy bun, emphasizing her large ears, pierced in several places. Her square face was hidden behind a wall of freckles that stretched from the roots of her hair to where her neck disappeared beneath her high collar. She stood nearly as tall as Leandros, but far lankier.

Roman beckoned Theodosia closer. “Thea, tell him what you can do.”

“Do?” Leandros asked.

“I’m rosanin,” Thea said. “I have a gift— that is, I can read people’s auras, and their auras manifest their intentions. You know, if they’re doing what they’re doing because of greed or righteousness, or hurt and love. I can see it.” Thea looked at the ceiling and scrunched up her nose, evidently trying to find a better way to explain. “Everyone emits a sort of…glow. There’s color, texture, brightness, and that changes based on where a person’s coming from. It’s hard to interpret sometimes, but I’m good at it.”

“It’s different from emotions,” Roman clarified for Leandros, practically vibrating with excitement. “She can tell when people are going to act.”

Theodosia nodded. “What I see is emotion bleeding into action. Someone can hate you and want you dead, but I’ll only see it when they decide to kill you. Or someone could love you, but I don’t see it until they decide to kiss you.”

Leandros tipped his head to the side, considering. “What if someone tries to kill me because they love someone who wants me dead?”

“People are more than a single motivation. I’d see the love, but the violence would be more immediate.”

Roman grinned. “See? She’s perfect! If someone gets close enough to hurt you, Thea can warn you. We won’t have to guess who on the team is dangerous. Plus, look at her! No one will ever suspect she’s guarding you.”

“Hey,” Theodosia sighed, resignedly.

“Sorry, Thea,” Roman said, patting her arm.

“Are you sure this is something you want to do? We’ll be gone a month, at least,” Leandros told her. “And it may be dangerous.”

Thea nodded. “I’m sure. Mr. Hallisey told me about everything that’s going on, and I want to help.”

Leandros considered her a moment. “Tell me, what do you see when you look at me?”

“Oh,” Thea said, deflating. She eyed Leandros. “Are you sure you want to know? Some people don’t take it well.”

“I can handle it.”

“If you say so.” Thea looked Leandros carefully up and down. “You’ve got a lot of emotions all mixed up, and they’re playing an important part in driving you forward. It’s more emotion than I’ve ever seen from anyone, actually, let alone an alfar. Most of it is shades of anger.” When Leandros winced, Thea added, “Sorry.”

“What do you see when you look at him?” Leandros nodded at Roman. “Selfishness? Cowardice? Apathy?”

“Guilt, mostly. Everything’s weirdly dampered with him, so it’s hard to tell.” Thea sighed. “I thought I was going to be a bodyguard, not a couples’ mediator.”

At Leandros’ shocked expression, she backtracked immediately. “Sorry! I’m terribly sorry. That was rude. Please don’t fire me.”

“I haven’t even officially hired you yet,” Leandros said, amused despite himself. “Do you think you’ll be able to pack your things and wrap up your affairs before the day’s out?”

Thea nodded. “I don’t have many affairs to wrap up.”

“I’ll need you to come with me to the Island to fill out some paperwork— Unity wants records of everyone going on this mission. As far as they’re concerned, you’re my assistant. Understand?” Leandros asked. When Thea nodded again, he continued, “Good. Would you wait for me downstairs? I’d like to speak with Roman for a moment.”

Thea waved a quick goodbye to Roman and hurried off. Leandros stared at Gareth until Gareth took the hint, starting in his seat and stammering some excuse about speaking to Isobel about supper. Once Roman and Leandros were alone, neither knew what to say.

Roman fidgeted, then broke the silence. “Hopefully, Thea’s assistance won’t even be necessary. I hear there’s word going around that anyone who harms you will have to face Egil.”

Leandros’ expression softened. “Thank you, Roman. I know how difficult it is for you to invoke that name.”

Roman shrugged and ran a hand through his hair. It was much shorter than Leandros had last seen it. “You’ll like Thea, I think. She’s a lot of fun.”

“It’s a nice thought, but I don’t have time for fun.”

Roman studied him, his expression turning serious. “You’ve changed.”

“If I have, it’s your fault.”

“I know.”

“Where did you go? Why didn’t you reach out?”

“I never meant for you to think—,”

“No? Amos and Rhea mourned you, you know. They thought you’d died— until new Egil stories started surfacing, anyway. And I couldn’t tell them that you left because I—,” Leandros cut himself off mid-sentence.

“It was for your own good, believe it or not,” Roman said, quiet. “And not entirely intentional on my part.”

Leandros couldn’t half but laugh at that. Thea had been right about shades of anger, and this one sat closest to his heart. He would not be ruled by it. He took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter anymore, I suppose. Roman, have you been alone all this time?”

“What?” Roman asked, thrown by the sudden shift, his dark eyes going wide. Then he hid his surprise behind his mask and smiled, coy. “Would you be jealous if I said no?”

“I’d be concerned if you said yes.”

“Why? Why even ask?”

“Because, despite everything, I care about you and I know how you are about wallowing in self-imposed solitude.”

“I do not— can’t you go back to yelling at me?”

“So you have been alone,” Leandros guessed, Roman’s expression confirming it. “You have to know how unhealthy that is.”

“I did just fine without you mothering me.”

Leandros huffed and moved to retrieve his clothes. “I don’t know why I bother with you.”

“I don’t know why you do, either. Wait a moment, Leandros,” Roman said, something about his tone making Leandros stop and look at him. Roman didn’t look like Roman, in that moment; he looked like Egil. There was a difference, albeit a subtle one— something about the set of his shoulders, the depth behind his eyes.

Roman would hate Leandros for saying it, but Leandros sometimes felt that Roman was the mask and Egil the person behind it.

“There are Enforcers on your team,” Roman said.

“I figured.” Leandros shrugged on his shirt. “I could probably point a few of them out. Do you know what they’re after? I fear it’s not rescuing my uncle.”

“No,” Roman agreed. “They’re after whatever it is you and Rhea saw that day.”

“It was magic,” Leandros said. Before Roman could speak, he continued, “Don’t you go doubting me, too. I know what I saw. Whatever it was, there’s no other way of explaining it.”

“I’d never doubt you,” Roman said. “And even if Unity does, they still believe you enough to chase whatever this thing is. That’s another reason it’ll be useful having Thea around— I don’t know what the Enforcers are going to do or how they’re going to do it. Ms. Fairfax can be our secret.”

“Our?” Leandros tasted the word on his tongue. “Roman, what are you even doing back in Gallontea? Why are you on this team? After all you did to get away from them, why are you back again? How can you take it?”

“I can’t,” Roman said. Egil disappeared again behind those dark eyes when Roman wrapped his arms around himself, as if trying to hold himself together. “But I can’t keep watching Unity grab at power without doing anything. They’ll raze Orean to the ground if they get the chance; I can’t let them. I have to find that magic before they do.”

“So you joined Unity’s team just to betray it,” Leandros guessed.

“I’ll help you get Amos back first, if I can.”

Leandros shook his head. “No, leave my uncle to me. You’re right to be doing what you’re doing, and I’ll help you, if I can.”

“Thank you.”

Leandros turned to leave, hesitating in the doorway. “Say you get the magic. What then? You’ve betrayed them with this, betrayed Unity. You have this magic, this weapon— whatever it may be. What then?”

“I don’t know,” Roman answered. “I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

“You never do,” Leandros said, adding. “You probably should.”

“Probably.”

Leandros sighed, shook his head, and waved a goodbye to Roman before going downstairs to find Thea.