38. Behind the Fire
Everything had turned into chaos.
All at once, everything seems to blend in together. The palace halls were filled with hectic shouts and screams, Aero storming with his men to secure the boarders of the kingdom now that its king had vanished right before everyone`s eyes.
General Malla and Elsie were quick to send sealed letters and handed them to the few guards from Trinivan and Vallas who accompanied them, barking orders to warn the twos northern kingdoms of its missing king and queen, and to prepare for any possible attack.
In the throne room, everyone I knew or had met gathered, but each were preoccupied with trying to tame down the disaster that befell on us.
The four royals had disappeared in plain sight, and their vanishing sparked the last tether that held this kingdom.
Till now, I wasn`t able to process anything. I just stood at a corner, leaning on the wall, and watched the happenings unfolding before me.
And it was hard not to gaze at the empty throne, to stop the flooding images of what could have happened to him –to any of them.
“We must send a message to Ellesmere immediately,” Agatha Alastair announced to the room, her aged eyes hard set as she turned to Gerard, who shared the same expression. “Take your men there, inform the Congress, and tell them to gather the ranked wizards to reinforce the city walls.”
Gerard put a fist to his chest and bowed, whatever kindness I used to see in his eyes now gone and replaced by duty.
“What about Freyr?” it was Ayana`s timid voice that spoke to the highest-ranked person in Ignolia –after the royals, or equal to them. “king Morrison did not bring any guards with us.”
Her eyes were still red, from crying I gathered, but she must have gone to a secluded spot amidst the confusion and poured the tears out.
Perhaps I would have done the same, but right now nothing in me functioned properly.
“Freyr will be informed as well,” Agatha affirmed, a gentle hand on the girl`s shoulder. “Each kingdom will be sent the most efficient ranked wizards to guard its walls.”
“What if it`s not enough, Your Excellence?” Elsie stepped in. Whether she felt any panic or dismay for her king`s disappearance, she showed no sign. “Trinvian`s boarders were breached, and our fortress is impregnable.”
That was the other thing; whoever our enemies were –wizard hunters or other forces –they always managed to penetrate our defenses. Even if it had been increased ten times, they would slip by like mere ghosts.
“We can only hope whoever took them doesn`t decide to ravage the cities for now,” Agatha sighed, “although it doesn`t appear to be their plan –not yet at least.”
“What do you mean?” Ayana questioned.
It actually made sense, now that I`m thinking about it. “The enemy`s plan was to abduct the rulers only—for the time being that is,” I explained. “If they wanted to sack the cities, they knew they wouldn`t stand a chance if the four royals were fighting against them. Till now, everything is quite. No sign of further trouble. So that could only mean their objective wasn`t to unleash an attack on us, but to take the rulers.”
“Otherwise the kingdom would be in bloodshed right now,” Elsie added, realizing the same.
“But how come we weren`t able to anticipate the attack before it happened?” Lucius said, as he sat on the lower stairs before the throne. Heads turned to him, and he took off his hat and brushed the messy hairs. “Surely any of us, especially their Majesties, could have been able to sense the hostile magic. Yet, nothing seemed wrong. Not until it was too late.”
“They might have used a cloaking spell,” Gerard considered, and it was the first thing he had said during his calculating calmness. “It`s possible, though not many people are able to master it. But if it were wizard hunters behind the attack, they probably used a stolen one.”
“I`ve never heard of a cloaking spell that can get by not one, but three of the most powerful wizards. Not to mention us as well,” Agatha admitted.
“Besides,” David pitched-in, a silent Lis tucked firmly by his side. Behind them, three sets of guards stood vigilant. She hadn`t said a single word since we entered the palace, though the swelling in her eyes was evidence of the storm inside her. “with stolen magic, it`s usually not as powerful when it`s not the original owner using it.”
Magic needs a host –a proper one. And when that magic is taken away from its original vessel, its full force is weakened when wielded by another.
Not entirely, for if it was weak there would be no point in stealing it.
But not all the same.
And a spell that couldn`t be detected by the greatest wizards in Ignoila –was there even such a thing?
“Sitting here and discussing won`t help us understand,” Agatha said, and fixed the grey sash that had the Congress crest sewn on it across her chest. “I must journey back to Ellesmere, console with my advisors on what to do next. For now, I can promise that protection and military aid will be sent to the kingdoms. We cannot risk anything without their Majesties` presence.”
“How do we even know if they`re still alive?” it was Redmond who asked, not bothering to hide the devastation on his face.
Dread crept up to my stomach, and I suddenly felt nauseous at the thought.
We still don`t know anything, Lydia…
There`s no reason to assume the worse just yet. I couldn`t think like that, couldn`t possibly allow myself to.
Not when I didn`t have Luxus by my side anymore…not when death came so easily to the people I love.
I banished these thoughts, and when I looked up Lis was visibly shaking, her hand tugging on the collar of David`s tunic.
“Young man,” Agatha stepped forward, her back straight and the very depicting picture of elegance and regal. Though her lips were set in a hard line, a soft glow caressed her features. “I`ve known these people throughout half my lifespan, and knew their mothers and fathers before them. If you think all is lost because they`ve been taken from us, then I insist that you have faith in those who led and protected our world for centuries.”
Redmond didn`t say anything else, as the whole room paused for a moment to ponder over Agatha`s confident words.
It helped a little, knowing that they wouldn`t go down without a fight.
But another part of me, one that was pushed deep onto the back of my mind, only felt fear no matter how many times I tried to convince myself that they were most likely safe.
“Perhaps each of you should return to your respectful kingdoms,” Gerard advised the three other Slifers, and I saw Elsie`s shoulders tense at the faint commanding tone. “A Slifer guarding each country might increase our chances in defense.”
I expected Elsie to bite back at the not-so subtle order, but it was Ayana who stood before him with a defiant expression. “I`m not going anywhere until I find King Morrison,” she said, and I smiled slightly at her tone of resolve. I`ve never heard her speak like that. Even Elsie smirked admiringly at her. “You said you`ll send ranked wizards to aid the cities. If your wizards are as good as you claim, then they won`t need our help. We have our own mission to carry.”
Gerard blinked at her, at the delicate-looking girl who stared down at him like the very image of the fabled Slifer she was.
“I must insist of your return,” he said calmly, though it was clear he didn`t like the fact she refused him in the first place. He regarded the four of us as if we were nothing but children. “None of you are experts in dire situations such as this. Although you may be powerful, your magic is needed elsewhere. Let us handle finding their Majesties.”
I snorted. “What makes you think we`ll listen to you? You may be the Head Officer, but we don`t exactly answer to you.”
I didn`t bother to tame my glower, and he returned it with a challenging look. I was still mad at him for conspiring with Lucius, for lying to my face so simply.
“Ayana`s right,” Redmond cut in, the same determination lacing his features. “It`s what we were created for, what the gods entrusted us to do.”
It might not have been specifically stated, but it`s quiet obvious by now that this was the reason we were made. It was all part of the gods` plan.
They knew everything, saw it coming from miles and miles –from years, really.
Which led me to think, was Aramis aware of it as well?
He was their messenger, so he might have had an idea.
If they knew that the rulers will disappear, then it`s certain they were aware of the events leading to it. The wizard hunters` attack, Lis losing her magic, Luxus` death…it was all written before.
And if Aramis knew…
Fire bubbled within me, and I breathed slowly just to stifle it back. For a second, I focused on clenching and unclenching my fist, just to give me something to pay attention to other than the growing rage inside.
If Aramis knew, that would explain why he hadn`t come to visit me, why he seemed to vanish entirely from everyone`s lives.
I needed to find him.
“Let them be, Gerard,” Agatha said, “They have every right to stay.”
He turned to her, ready to protest. “But, Your Excellence—“
She raised a hand in silence, and something in the way she held herself was weary. “The prophecy had come true. It might have not happened yet, but a war is coming soon, Gerard. And only the gods know the nature of it. It is unwise to allow the Slifers to go on their separate ways. They were created together, and together they shall stay.”
The one to bind them all…
Somehow remembering these words made me feel like the room was closing in on me.
Gerard didn`t argue any further, but dropped his head in obedience.
Agatha turned to leave, her guards swarmed at each side. But before she stepped out, she addressed the princess of Imarnia. “I suggest you ready yourself for being Queen Regent, Your Highness. Something tells me it will be a long war, and your people need you now more than ever.”
And with that she left.
Lis didn`t respond, but buried her face in her fiancé`s chest, and he wrapped a steady arm around her.
I stalked slowly towards her, not knowing what to say, what words to offer her. All I knew was I hated seeing her like this…as if she was finally defeated.
“Lis, I`m…” I went to touch her arm, but she jerked it away from me.
The action made my fingers freeze mid-way.
“You were supposed to protect him,” tears welled up in her eyes again, and her bottom lip quivered. David smoothed her hair, planting a kiss at her temple. But the disappointment in her brown eyes, the sheer repentance she directed at me, knocked the balance off my legs, and I found myself stunned in place.
“I`m sorry…” it was all I could think of.
Perhaps if I had stayed, if I had been closer to him, I would have been able to get him out.
But it was impossible, I told myself. None of us could breech the fog or even cause a dent. So even if I had been there…
She shook her head, and the way she retreated back from me split my heart in half. “You were supposed to protect him,” she repeated, “and you didn`t. You left him…”
The weight of her words sank deep, and I suddenly felt the air drain from my lungs.
I couldn`t stand the way she looked at me, couldn`t even meet her eyes.
A part of me believed I couldn`t have done anything further, that her blaming me was only because she was being emotional and couldn`t think right. But the other part couldn`t shake the guilt off.
I know it wasn`t my fault.
And yet, and yet…
I couldn`t breathe. I needed some air.
Without sparing a glance at anyone, I ducked my head as I stormed out of the throne room as fast as my legs could possibly go. It felt like the walls of the palace were squeezing in on me, slowly suffocating my throat.
I weaved my way out of the castle, the cold air hitting my face and blowing off the hood of my cloak.
Aramis…Aramis could help me.
I sent a prayer to whoever was listening that he in fact would, or that I could actually find him. Blowing a shaky breath, I set off to the woods to find him, with only the watchful moon as my companion.
“Aramis!” I pounded on the door for the third time, nearly splitting it open. “Open up! Now!”
My hand hurt from knocking on the wood repeatedly, and still he didn`t show up. It might be that he wasn`t at home.
When I pressed my ear against the door, trying to listen for any shuffle of feet or the sound of fire crackling in the fireplace, I only heard the empty whisper of a draft.
Out of frustration, I growled as I kicked the door, the wood cracking and breaking under my boots. If he was trying to ignore me, then he`ll have another thing coming. But if he wasn`t actually here and I ruined his door, then I better not let him find me if he ever comes back.
“Aramis, are you here!? I…” the rest of my words were choked out from the amount of dust filling the place.
Scanning the small living room, I realized that what the king said was true.
It seemed like no one has lived here for at least a month, the floor and furniture coated with dust. There was no fire brewing in the fire-place. In fact, there was no lump of wood or any indication that it was recently used.
Where the hell did he go to?
“You won`t find him,” a thick voice called from behind me, and I had to step inside a bit to fully turn around and see who or what it was.
A figure of a man cloaked in dark red stood before me, tall and towering and almost twice my height. The upper part of his face was covered with a hood that lowered over his nose and mouth.
Though it was dark, I could see the easy smile the man wore. As if he had known me for a while.
“What do you mean?”
I should be alarmed. My instincts should be on alert. After all, there stood a suspicious stranger telling me I won`t find Aramis in his own home.
But something about him was…puzzling.
Like I knew him too.
“He`s gone. You won`t be seeing him for a while now,” he said, gliding forward as I took a step back. He noted my mistrust, and that mouth only widened in a smile. “You don`t need to be afraid. I would never harm you, Lydia.”
I almost snorted at the stranger. “You really can`t expect me believe that? And how the hell did you know my name?”
He could be a wizard hunter…one of those enemies Lucius spoke of.
At the thought, I switched to a protective stance, shoulders pushed back and a fist ready at my side.
He chuckled softly, and the sound –despite my common sense –was pleasant. “Oh, you are a feisty one. I admit that thrills me.”
“Glad I impressed you,” I drawled sarcastically. “Now, tell me who you are, and what did you do to Aramis?”
“Oh, Lydia,” one of his hands slipped from the cloak, and I couldn`t help but marvel at the glowing swirls of red and orange marks around his forearm. His fingers tugged on the hood of his cloak, and he extended his other hand to me. “I will never harm you, because you and I are the same. You came from me, and I gave you life.”
My knees threatened to buckle from under me when a burst of golden fire sparked from his open palm, as the hood slipped off and a face very similar to mine was revealed.
His skin was a lot darker than mine, those same marks drawn across the sides of his face and the center of his forehead, while his long unbound hair entirely the color of flames.
And his eyes…they were two orbs of molten fire staring back at me.
“You…you`re…” I swallowed my shock, tried to push it down.
He was gracious enough to say it for me, “Your father; Decimus,” those flames went off, and he took my hand in his and kissed the back of it. “You have no idea how long I`ve been waiting for this moment.”
This doesn`t make any sense –or did it make a lot of sense? I honestly didn`t know anything anymore.
I had so many things to ask, so many questions on my mind, but the one that came out was, “How is that even possible? Aramis said…”
“That gods cannot descend upon this world,” he clarified. “Yes, that`s true. For if they stayed too long it would bring disorder. Which is why I`ve only stayed for a short time, keeping my visits as limited as possible.”
Visits? As in more than once?
“Why are you here?” I asked, hoping that I didn`t sound too rude in front of a literal god –who was my father by the way.
It`s just that my brain stopped processing everything, and I resisted the urge to slap myself in case I was hallucinating all of this.
He tilted his head to the side, amusement tugging on his ethereal features. “Didn`t you ask for me?”
’I didn`t ask…” it was starting to become hard to breath, and I could feel dizziness creeping up.
I shook my head for a little sense of clearness, but it only felt like the room was spinning. So I retreated back to Aramis` dusty sofa, pluming myself on it and attempted to regain back my steadiness.
This was too much –too many things happening all at once.
“Are you alright? I understand your confusion,” he moved to sit on the arm of the cushion, and I watched him pull a flask from the inner pockets of his cloak. “Here,” he presented the gold-plated canteen to me, “drink this. You`ll feel better.”
“What is it?” I eyed the container.
For all I know, it could be poison.
But I don`t think my own father would poison me –at least if that was really him.
“It`s just something to help the nerves. It`s my own recipe too.” He looked really proud at that information, and I couldn`t resist the small twitch on my lips.
I took it from him, unscrewing the cap. And out of caution, I tried to smell what exactly he was giving me.
The moment the scent entered my nostrils, my face scrunched up in disgust.
It was as if he mixed the rottenest things in there!
“It smells awful,” I told him, shoving the bottle back in his hands.
He raised a red-gold eyebrow at me. “Oh, hush! Pumpkin tea is very nutritious. I even added some honey and silkworms to the mix.”
At the mention of the silkworms, I almost gagged. “Who the hell puts worms in pumpkin t—“
I paused, my eyes darting from his secretive smile to the bottle of disgusting tea in his hand. All the thoughts rushed to my head, and I couldn`t focus on a single one.
It can`t really be.
I could feel my mouth parting, could almost sense the stupid look on my face as realization struck hard like a lightning bolt.
And when my mouth went to form the word, I wasn`t sure what to believe anymore. “Aramis?”
His lips peeled back in confirmation, and those glowing eyes danced with delight. “Took you long enough.”