As the dragons landed on the roof of the castle I slipped my hand into my pocket, reaching for the Bloodstone.
I had suspected that there would be an attack the very moment that I landed, for surely the king had been warned of my arrival, even if the Grey Stone somehow never told him, so I wanted to be sure that I was ready. I hadn't touched the Stone before the knights came in case it activated my own magic. Touching it in the air was also an issue as I had no idea what it actually did, so I had my hand in the hidden pocket of my cloak when I slipped off the dragon onto the hard, stone castle roof.
I tugged the protective leather away, looked at the red ribbon, braced myself, grasped the tiny thing in my fingers and...
And felt nothing.
No. Not nothing. There was something, but it was so low of a murmur in the back of my mind that I couldn’t seem to focus on it, like trying to hold onto the thread of a spiders web - you felt it as you touched it, but it was so thin and insignificant that when you held it, you could not feel it. It wasn’t even similar to the link to the dragons (which was easily ignored itself). No, this was something that I was sure could become completely forgotten.
I felt a flash of worry – did it do nothing? Was the magic in it dead or nearly so? Had I gone through so much for so little?
“You will remain here,” said the blue-cloaked knight as if he were capable of forcing me if I did not comply. As it was, I wanted to stay here so I simply raised an eyebrow to show amusement and nodded.
My hand slipped out of my pocket, my fingers leaving the Stone though for some reason they did not want to at all. The murmur I’d heard was still there though it was no longer in my hand; faint and distant and forgettable and hopefully not useless.
The roof was wide and flat, only interrupted by the occasional slanted arch for doors, posts for lanterns, and the two-twig-high lip around the edges.
The castle itself was shaped a like a cornered C with two grand towers growing off each end and a narrow strip that was the bridge separating the castle into the north wing and the south wing. I currently stood upon the south wing and so I got a glorious view of the city.
Or what should have been glorious.
I frowned at the view because it had somehow become worse during my months of absence. I suspected that Marqis was somehow even worse of a ruler then is father had been – something not many would believe possible, I was sure. Looking closely, I could see that the richest part of the city was no more. Even the most noble of the bloodline were in poverty now.
Or perhaps they were dead. I had no way of knowing right yet. I would have to beat Marqis before I was privy to the current state of Qa’elah.
But I felt nervous now, my confidence leaving me alone with my fear of failure. I had expected a lot from the Bloodstone and now that it proved to be such a disappointment, my worries became more pronounced. My only hope was that it would become what I needed when I needed it, or that the White Stone could defeat Marqis' powers of the Grey Stone with only the help of my own. I was powerful, I knew. I could feel that, like energy running through me constantly but comfortably. Whereas before I had felt lesser than many around me, I now felt taller, stronger, more agile, as if I had grown in every way one could.
It also allowed me to hear Marqis climb the steps to the roof, even from several dozen twigs away.
His voice sent a shiver up my spine. A shiver of anger, hate, and of fear.
I turned and faced the man. “Marqis,” I said. It sounded as if we were greeting at a ball, a meeting between two important people who were not enemies at all. It was casual, even in its impropriety.
He was dressed as such, too. His clothing was of rich silk dyed in the brightest of blues and the darkest of grays. His shoes were polished to a shine. He wore his gold-hemmed robe upon his back with crystals gleaming black of dragon crystals, and his crown sat upon his head of hair which shined with health in the bright sunshine. His eyes, I saw, were a deep, deep blue. His face was calm and relaxed, though I saw the sweat on his brow and was sure he, too, was afraid.
In comparison, I was sure that I looked wild. With my dark cotton clothing that had gone through more travel than should be possible without it falling apart at the seams, my leather vest which had so many patches on it from all the injuries I’d acquired during my quest that it was barely useful, and all this partially hidden beneath my ragged cloak – not to mention my unruly hair which was knotted and flying with the wind in every direction – I looked a mess.
But our marks, I saw, were different as well.
Though I could not see much on the king due to his clothing, I was able to clearly see that the dragons on the neck and wrists were lighter and smaller than mine, not yet filled out. The crystals coming from the dragons mouth looked like fire, red and gleaming, but there were very little of them in comparison to my own and they did not stretch far. There were also black swirls mixed with the grey, which confused me seeing as I had no black on my own, while at the same time, I was sure that I was actually, somehow, more powerful than he.
Because I was more a ruler than he.
I stood taller.
“I must admit,” he said after we both had our looks at each other. “I am quite impressed with your ability to keep hidden. To hide from me now is one thing, but to hide from my father as a babe?” He tilted his head. “How could you have managed that? Who cared for you?”
“I did not come to speak,” I reminded him.
“You should not have come at all.” At that statement, he shot a look at the blue-cloaked man who had come back on the roof with him and stood once again with the other knights that now ringed our section of the roof entirely. The knight swallowed visibly with nerves at that hard look but Marqis turned his attention away so it could be focused on me once again. His expression turned alarmingly pleasant.
“It need not be this way, you know. You do not need to fight me. We could rule Nahdiera together. With you at my side, none could defeat us.”
I snorted – an admittedly very unqueenly sound. “The people are dying. It will not be much longer under your rule before you find you have no people left to rule at all.”
“Ah, but this is just for now, Meira. Don’t you see? Nahdiera is a fortress in itself! Surrounded by near impassable mountains as it is and with the borders controlled by the Grey Stone, we could use this fortress to take what we wish. We could pull the riches from the elven kingdom, for instance.” He gave me a greedy look. “Imagine the riches, Meira. Imagine them and know that I am willing to share them with you.”
His voice was deep and flowing and mesmerizing. Alluring.
I was entirely unimpressed.
“The fact that you are willing to share them with me goes to prove how terrified you are of me,” I said, my voice firm, my eyes alight. “I have been surrounded by wealth, Marqis, and I care for it not at all. Do not bother to attempt to bribe me again.”
He sighed deeply – a sound of great exhaustion. “Then what will you ask of me then? What have you brought yourself here for? You wish me to step from the throne and gift it to you? Perhaps tie a bow around the top and place a vase of the rarest flowers within?”
“I came here to kill you,” I told him bluntly, ignoring his attempt at humor. “I would never let you live, Marqis.”
He chuckled and shook his head, then casually made a motion with his hand. It was the same motion he had made before, sending the dragons after me.
I winced at the feeling through the connection but the dragons didn’t move.
He frowned and made the motion again. Just a flick of his wrist, one he’d no doubt mastered as a child, but it was no longer working.
I chuckled, causing his eyes to whip to mine in surprise. “Did your men not tell you? Your dragons cannot sense me. You’ll have to fight this battle yourself.”
He narrowed his eyes, the humor long gone. “Kill her.”
The knights stepped forward to attack, but I shouted, ”stop!” which made them suddenly unsure, and when they looked to Marqis for instruction and he said nothing, they stayed.
“I see how pale your faces are,” I told them. “How sick and hungry. I see how you fear him. You have seen my power and you see the fear on his face, which tells you that he fears me as well. Surely you do not want this man to remain on the throne. Surely you know I have a chance at killing him myself if you would but step back and force him to fight his own battles. I do not wish to kill any of you – you are my people, after all – but I will defend myself if you force my hand.”
A few lowered their swords at my words, most slowly, but a few did so immediately as if they’d only been waiting for the excuse to do so. Most of the remaining showed no reaction except to glance at Marqis in fear.
But a couple of them came forward anyway, anger on their faces. There was no hesitation in their hate for me. I narrowed my eyes just as they went to attack.
I focused the energy of the Grey Stone in my wrists and reached out. With the Stone now exposed to my self, I was able to stretch it from my hands like an extended, powerful arm. With one, I broke the arm of the first knight with a quick flit of my wrist, the other I broke a leg of the second knight.
When one cried out and the other crumpled silently, I looked to Marqis again. “Fight your own battle, Crowned Thief.”
His face changed then, no longer was it the man who stepped out of a ballroom, but a man contorted with rage and - perhaps - a bit of madness. He reached his hand toward me and twisted, making the same motion he’d used to pop the head off the man in the Viewing Square a lifetime ago.
Nothing happened, of course.
I smiled. “Did your father not tell you?” I asked. “Using the Grey Stone to harm me would be much like telling the Stone to harm itself. Of course, there is a loophole.” And with that, I reached out with my magic and ripped a post out of the stone roof. The cracking of wood as it splintered was loud and sudden in the silence between us. I threw it at Marqis who raised both arms to stop it with his own powers.
As the post came to a halt, inches before his face, I leaped forward with my sword, planning on slicing his neck open here and now. There was no need to drag this out. No need to make this a game or a taunt. I wanted my crown and I wanted it now.
But Marqis had seen it coming and he threw out his hand. Of course he did not stop it with his bare hand, but he used the magic of the Grey Stone to bring the metal to a halt inches from his neck, then flung it back.
I huffed with irritation as I stumbled a step. Realizing that though he could not take the sword from me completely, my weapon was genuinely useless.
I backed up, preparing.
Then the post I’d thrown came at me.
I rolled out of the way, ducking it, then with great effort I yanked stone from the roof itself and threw it at him.
He put his hand up and swiped it away casually, even as his other hand went out to throw more from the ground toward me.
I ducked and then jumped as another post came flying. I tried to grasp both with my magic as it went by, like Marqis had my own blows, but I couldn’t seem to react fast enough.
Then there were more things. More stone. More posts. A lantern, the wick inside still aflame, shot past my face close enough to feel the heat.
I continued to dodge almost easily as I was hyper-aware of where everything was, but I could not grasp hold of anything to stop it. Therefore, I was quickly becoming exhausted, while Marqis stayed in one place throwing things at me with casual motions of his hand, not even breaking a sweat.
How could this be? I was stronger than he was, I was sure of it!
I put in more effort, straining myself with force alone. Still, I could not seem to reach past him. The smile on his face was ever-growing.
Then a knight was coming at me from the side, suddenly and without warning. I leaped back from the blade that very nearly caught my neck—
I was knocked in the side by flying stone I had been too distracted to notice, hard enough to break several ribs and was flung across the roof. I landed and rolled until I hit the lip of the roof hard, biting my tongue at the force. My vision blackened in pain as blood filled my mouth, but I fought it off, my broken arm moving so that I could reach into my pocket on a scream, in desperate need for the Ruberous Faun.
I cried out again as it began healing me, shifting fragments of bone back into place with a burn before sealing them piece by piece.
Marqis approached slowly with a laugh as I lay in pain. “It is no wonder my father could never find you. You are unpracticed!” He laughed again, loud and joyful and mocking. “You are like a newly hatched werm trying to fight off a full-grown alpha wolf. You may be stronger then I, Meira, I will admit that now, but I know how to use... now what do we have here?”
He reached down to my hand and I tried to yank it away, only to realize I was pinned down by an invisible force. Looking behind him, I saw men in grey and white robes and knew he’d allowed the mages come to join.
Fight your own battle! I wished to scream at him.
I knew how to defeat their magic– it was simply an extension of the magic from my ankles and feet to break the ward around me – but by the time I was free of the shield they’d formed, Marqis was already holding the gem in his hand.
His eyes widened as he felt the healing abilities. “Oh my,” he said, rolling his left shoulders as some unknown injury healed itself. “The Ruberous Faun. How, I wonder, did you manage to get this?”
I was not fully healed, but I was mostly healed, and I moved quickly, grasping my sword again and thrusting it—
It hit against something, deflecting, and I realized I was not the only one whom had a shield around them from the mages. I pushed my magic out to take it down, but by then my surprise was no more and he had already stepped back, slipping the gem into his pocket. His reaction to my attack was almost no reaction at all.
I stood quickly, though I did not like having the open air behind me. My calves hit against the stone lip of the roof. Behind that, far, far down below in the courtyard, was the platform that held the Grey Stone. It was stained a rusty orange now with the blood of the sacrifices it demanded. If I fell, I would land on it and the very source of my power would be what killed me.
But I was not defeated yet.
My hand went to my neck and I ripped the leather cord from it. “I got the Ruberous from the Black Mountains,” I said as I did this.
His eyes actually widened and he took a step back. “Impossible.”
My fingers slipped past the leather that covered it as he backed away further, and the second they touched the White Stone, I felt magic flare inside me. It was fast and strong and powerful enough to make my heart quicken even more so than it already was. Like they Grey Stone, it was glaringly obvious in my mind, swelling in my body as if creating a second skin beneath my own.
Power. Power. I felt so much power.
I smiled – now that was more like it!
“And it’s not the only thing I got there,” I told him, feeling a smile cross my own face now.
Even my voice sounded stronger, more powerful. It was as if an undetectable echo were beneath it.
His eyes widened, and he took several more steps back even as he threw his hands out, desperately trying to defeat me now. No more games for him. No more amusement. No pleasantries or delays.
Stone came up in the form of boulders and flung at me from both sides. I threw my power out, emphasized with the power of the White Stone so that I could crush this pathetic, final attempt to defeat me.
But it did nothing.
I barely dodged the boulders in time, dropping down and rolling. It skimmed me but did not harm me.
I rolled onto my feet and tried to throw something with my magic but still there was nothing different than there had been in my earlier actions. Marqis easily stopped the rubble and the post in mid-air, crumbling one into sand and the other into splinters that caught in the wind and blew away with the last of my hopes.
No. I would not give up.
I focused on the power alone. Just the White Stone and ignoring my Grey so that I could catch him off guard, and I tried to do something – anything at all. I caught a pulling in my mind and followed it... only to find nothing there.
A post hit me from the side this time and I was knocked again. It broke nothing, but hurt everything, especially my pride.
When I came to a rolling stop, I was blurry and dizzy and black spots covered the edges of my vision which I blinked away rapidly. I felt heat going cool down my head and knew I must have hit my head hard on something during my roll.
The White Stone had fallen from my hand, but I still felt the buzzing. The power. So much power.
How could it be so useless?
I watched Marqis walk to the fallen Stone warily, approaching it as if it would come up and strike him if he went too near.
Then he broke out in laughter.
It was a great, echoing laughter that came from deep in the belly and shook the shoulders, reddening his face and showing all his teeth. When he looked at me again, he had tears in his eyes from the force of it.
“The White Stone? You thought the White Stone could defeat me?” He was almost wheezing now; his laughter was so great. He wiped a tear away and cleared his throat, trying to stop his hysterics but failing. “You poor thing. I almost feel terrible for killing you.” He walked over and crouched down by my face as his laughter finally trailed off naturally into a chuckle. His grin was wide, revealing a dimple better suited on a good guy, not the villain. “That stone is for doing good, Meira. It would never come to aide you in a fight. It could never do anything to bring any sort of harm.”
His grin turned sadistic and slightly manic with only a faint shift of his cheeks. “Whereas its counter stone... this little beauty right here...” he dug into his pocket and came out with a flat rounded stone that shimmered. It was pure black.
He tutted. ”This one does all sorts of tricks. Like this for example.” He blew at my face and suddenly I was burning.
Every injury I had on me felt like it was on fire. I could almost feel the skin bubbling and boiling then melting from my bone, the remaining flesh charring a black and crispy–
Then it stopped, as if there had been no pain in the first place.
I lay gasping, my throat raw, and it was only then I was realizing I had been screaming.
He chuckled again. “You can’t possibly think that you were the only one out there searching for powerful things, do you?” I tried to hit him, to grab his throat and choke the life from him, but he was still protected by the mages.
He stood and stepped back, turning away from me.
“Ring the bells and call all to the Viewing Square. Have the Grey Stone moved to the entrance platform in the Viewing Square as well.” He sighed briefly. “The people need to watch her die or they’ll all be dead before the next moon due to their rebellious thoughts.”
“Your Excellency,” someone agreed, and I heard footsteps.
I wanted to scream. No! I would not fail!
I threw my magic out, dissipating his shield of magic... but in the next second his triumphant eyes were on me and his hand pointing my way and I felt the pain again.
I felt myself burning. It was blinding, so blinding. I couldn’t handle the pain, I couldn’t handle it.
Darkness began to surround me and I quickly rushed into its open arms, desperate to escape the pain, as well as my failures.