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Chapter 23

I was nearing sixty years when the Oluanvi chose me to be the Keeper of the Guardians. It was the greatest honour of my life. That I, a bastard Olu from a disgraced house had risen to such high esteem—well, it was unprecedented. Unheard of, and I, overwhelmed with gratitude.

It was some weeks after my audience with the Oluanvi that the three egglings arrived in Perilea. I was to meet with each of their parents in turn before they passed into my care but we were not afforded the chance. Somehow Kairos had learned of the Oluanvi’s plan to eradicate both Dragon and Oluan kind, and had attacked the city.

In my stupidity I thought he’d come for the Oluanvi still in the city. I never imagined that I might be his target. Now I know that he was after the egglings. You see, I think he had already set his plan in motion. He knew he would survive the Great Sacrifice and that the egglings were the only thing that might stand against him in the future.

I thank Eldhor that his source never learned of the egglings’ location in the city. He knew where to find me, and I think he assumed that I would have them. He attacked the temple first. Reduced it to rubble while its occupants still slept. I watched it happen from the cliffs. I’d gone for one final jump, a farewell before I was to leave Perilea, and was forced to watch my home crumble from afar. I knew then that my time in Perilea had come to an end and that I had to retrieve the egglings and get out.

I will spare you the details of how I escaped. The only reason I tell you any of this is so that you will understand, perhaps, why those first few months after Perilea were so difficult for me and the egglings.

I was a stranger you see, and an Olu—and those three were from the purest and strongest of Oluan bloodlines with ties reaching as far back as the Oluanvi themselves. That kind of status breeds prejudice, and I can’t say that I blamed them. I was the Olu who had taken them from their families without a proper farewell. It only got worse after the Great Sacrifice.

They refused to communicate with me, and after many failed attempts, I am ashamed to say that I gave up. I turned my attentions to making a home and finding ways to support myself and them when the time came.

And then Aida hatched.

She was so small a thing. And despite that she had been aware for longer than I had been living, her body hadn’t, and she needed all of the care and nurturing of a newborn child. I gained her trust that day and the others were quick to accept me when they saw how I cared for their nest-mate. We became a family of sorts. Bound by our roles and by our shared heritage. The last of our race left in all of Nethea—or so we believed. It was a year and half before Nymal hatched. Half a year more before Euan arrived.

He, like you, hailed from another world. I have often wondered if perhaps it was the same one, but I think not. He had a strange preoccupation with trees—anything growing really—and the sky. Said that in his world, humans had used up all of their earth’s resources and blocked out the sun with the stinking fumes of their refuse. Our world was a paradise to him and he was eager to protect it from the same fate of his.

Euan was very young, a boy who had seen no more than fifteen winters, but his life as a street urchin had prepared him for the rigours of training. He took to the sword immediately though it was knives he favoured above all else. Power escaped him for many months. When he did finally awaken it, he struggled for a long time to control it. He told me that nothing like it existed in his world. Not like you and your stories of magic and spells.

When Euan’s training was complete, Aida accepted him and they were bonded. Soon after, they left us. I think now that perhaps we should have waited. Trained longer…perhaps even together, like you and Vander have. But they were young and eager to prove themselves. And I let them go, but only after extracting a promise that they would return within a year.

Vander hatched not long after that.

He and Nymal were inseparable, as close as true siblings. Both were Hunters, alike in spirit and temper despite their many differences. As Aida had done for her, Nymal took Vander under her wing and taught him to fly. To hunt and to shift. She helped him to hone the weapons he was born with, and I, those that would serve him in his human form.

Vander has always possessed a certain intensity, a driving need to prove himself worthy of—I don’t know what. The Hunter? His family, the Oluanvi—perhaps Eldhor himself? It is no excuse but it is why I believe he is the way that he is. Impatient to fulfill the role he was chosen for.

News of Aida’s death hit him the hardest.

It was just after the last of the winter snows had melted. I’d gone to Keswick for supplies and to gather what information I could about Aida and Euan’s doings. As you know, the ward prevents any form of communication and they had not returned as promised. We were all worried for them, Vander especially, but the reality of what I learned in Keswick had never crossed our minds.

I was sitting down to my dinner in the taproom of the Dasan Inn when a man burst into the inn, shouting that the Guardians were dead and that Kairos had killed them. The man was one of the many messengers sent by Aiden, King of the Middlelands, to spread the news of the Guardians’ death and warn the people of Kairos’ return.

He said that Aida and Euan had been called to the North. To Carmett, home to the most powerful and respected of the Northern chieftains, Orsigh, to aid him in investigating a slew of shifter attacks on his cities and villages. According to the messenger, the Guardians had gone into the Reaches with a small retinue of men and never returned. A single soldier survived. A female shifter in the employ of the chief who had only escaped because Euan had thrown himself between her and the torrent of flame unleashed by Kairos as he’d slaughtered their entire party. At least, that is the story the messenger told.

I left Keswick that same night, sick to my soul with all that had learned. And all that I would have to tell Vander and Nymal.

It shattered them. Destroyed us all. I— I am sorry. It affects me still, even after all of these years. The pain—the despair in the months that followed as we struggled to accept that Aida and Euan were truly gone, and that Kairos—Kairos was alive. He was alive and everything we had endured and suffered was for nothing. The Great Sacrifice—the extinction of our race—all for nothing because Kairos had somehow survived both Ithrielle, and that cataclysmic event. I don’t think the pain of that will ever ease for me. Not until my body returns to the earth.

When Reiner came to us, six months had passed since Aida and Euan’s passing, and we were still deep in mourning. He was Nethean, a Northerner from one of the mountain villages near Lostown. He knew the Guardians—he’d been serving in the Northern army when they were killed—and he was enraged by their deaths.

Reiner was strength and fire. He was a soldier, a weapon, honed from the harsh stone of the Reaches themselves. And he gave us new hope.

He was—the best I have ever trained. At twenty-four years, Reiner had been warrior of many years before he was Chosen. There wasn’t much either I, or Vander could teach him about the blade he wielded so expertly. Power was—another matter.

Raised in the North, Reiner had a deep seated hate for all things he—and his people—new to be unnatural. His ancestors had participated in the Cleanse—a systematic hunt for all those who possessed Power, no matter how little—and he’d grown up with that fear and hatred. Not toward us though, me or the Dragons but himself… He wouldn’t touch his Power. Would not believe that he even possessed it.

The delay in his training chafed us all but no one more so than Reiner himself. He was impatient, eager to return to the world. To the North where Kairos was gathering strength. News in the taverns and inns Vander visited every few cycles for information, was that Kairos was building an army in one of the hidden Oluan cities of the Reaches. Filling it with pelt-shifters and those gifted with Power. Anyone hungry for revenge or looking for sport. We all feared what would happen to the Northern Kingdom when Kairos unleashed that army of hate.

It was Vander who finally made him see sense, though I have always suspected that Nymal had a hand in it. Reiner was lethal with a blade. He believed that he didn’t need his Power to defeat Kairos. A crutch, that was what he called it. Vander, being who he is, decided that it was time to show Reiner how wrong he was.

I can see by your face that you have an idea of how it was done. Considering your experience, I would wager that whatever you are thinking, it is not far from the truth. Reiner’s strengths lay in weapons and hand to hand combat. So Vander used his Power to disarm and subdue him before Reiner could wield either. It was over so quickly, Reiner so completely helpless without Power of his own…I was furious when he found me later and told me all that had happened. Furious and prepared to skin the scales from both Vander and Nymal for what they had done without my knowledge—and then Reiner asked me to help him wield his Power.

Reiner attacked his training with the same burning intensity he displayed in all aspects of his life, awakening his Power by sheer determination and an unwillingness to give up. Even then, it was months before he was able to bend it to his will. Longer before he could wield it as effectively as he did his blades. But the result—Eldhor. Galtrid, hell, any of the Oluanvi, would have fought tooth and nail to claim him. And bonded to Nymal? Well, they should have been unstoppable.

In the three years that they served, Reiner and Nymal returned here, to us, twice.They told us of their adventures in that wild and dangerous land. The battles they had fought and won. The strange, superstitious people they served and protected. They had taken residence in Carmett and it was from there that they held the North against Kairos, traveling wherever the need was greatest but always returning to the castle in the evergreen highlands.

Vander was in Longford purchasing new stock to freshen our bloodlines when Carmett fell. Everyone within the stronghold presumed dead. Burned to ash in Kairos’s flames. Perhaps it was denial, or pure reckless need, but Vander did not return home immediately. He went in search of answers, travelling as far as Plett before he found them.

Nymal and Reiner were dead. Their ashes mixed with those of Orsigh, High Chief of the North, and Aiden, King of the Middlelands. No one could tell Vander what had happened. The most anyone knew was that Aiden had travelled to Carmett with half of the Middlelands army just days before the attack. Why? There was no one left alive who could say.

So Vander came home. Broken. And I— I could not remain here so I left. I left him here with his grief while I travelled between towns. A ghost. I could not find it within myself to care that Kairos had claimed Carmett for himself. Or that his monsters now roamed the Northern territories, free to kill and plunder as they would. An entire country had been overrun by evil and I—I couldn’t bring myself to care. Not when I had failed them so completely.

Aida and Euan, Nymal and Reiner—the children I sent to their deaths. The Oluanvi—Ithrielle, those who had trusted me to safeguard the future. I wanted to die. Eldhor forgive me but I did. I thought I deserved to. But it was not for me to decide so I continued to roam the Eastern Plain, traveling between villages and towns.

That is how I met Hanna.

She was working in a run-down establishment in Longford, serving the likes of me and worse. She showed me true kindness, regardless of whether I deserved it or not. She gave me food and drink when I had no coin to pay, and let me sleep in the stables with the animals at great risk to herself. It was that kindness that made me realize that there was still good in the world. Good people worth fighting to protect. So I returned to the homestead, to Vander and I waited. We waited. For you.

“What do you expect me to do?” Mia’s voice shook with barely controlled desperation, soul deep fear. What could she do that the others couldn’t? Those brave and powerful young people whose skills had far exceeded her own. How was she supposed to survive, to succeed where they had failed, when she wasn’t even half the Guardian they had been?

Mia had scoured every word Orden uttered. Examined every detail of Guardians’ stories, and had come up empty-handed. There was no reason she could find, no fatal mistake or fault to explain why the others had failed. “How can you expect me to do any better?”

Orden sat across from her, propped up against a tree, his long legs stretch out over the leaf-strewn ground. Dawn had crept up on them in the time it had taken Orden to tell his story. The rustlings and quiet murmuring of the forest filling the quiet left in the wake of Mia’s question and accusation.

“I do not expect anything from you,” Orden rasped, his voice rough after talking through the night. Mia bit her cheek to keep from shrieking her frustration. “I can only hope that this time—”

“What? That this time it will be different?” Mia scrambled to her feet, the pain and stiffness in her legs barely registering as she glared down at Orden. “Is that what you were going to say?” She hissed.

Orden’s eyes hardened, but he did not deny it.

Mia sucked in a breath. She raked her fingers through her hair, dislodging the leather tie that had kept it pulled back from her face. “That’s not good enough.” She said, stretching the thin loop of leather between her hands as she paced before the still smoldering coals of last night’s fire. “There has to be something else. Something we’re missing.”

It was staring her right in the face, Mia could feel it, but what? The others, by all accounts, had been perfect, people cut from a very different cloth than she. Heroes. Martyrs. Brave and powerful, they had met every criteria, checked all the boxes on the list. And died. The last line of defense, guiding hands to steer humans from evil, and they were just gone. How? How?

“Wait.” Mia stopped dead in her tracks, hands falling to her sides. What if—No, it couldn’t be that simple. Could it? Mia’s heart lurched into hectic motion. She turned and found Orden watching her with questioning eyes. If she was right—ifit might just be the missing piece of the puzzle.

“The bond,” Mia said, her mouth suddenly dry as chalk. She swallowed. “Is it—is it possible that it—” Oh how to say this? Mia took a deep a breath and charged forward with her thoughts. “You once told me that it’s forbidden for Guardians to love each other.” Orden’s brows slammed together but Mia pressed on, “Do you think this is why? Do you think it’s possible that falling in love makes us weak? Vulnerable?” In her head it had seemed like a shot in the dark but out loud… Mia shivered.

Orden’s frown deepened, his face contorting with the effort of processing what she’d said. Then, in an instant, his eyes went wide and his mouth slackened. He’d come to the same realization as she had. Mia couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “It makes sense, doesn’t it?” She prompted, relief making the words louder than she’d intended.

Orden dropped his gaze but not before she saw the moisture building in his red-rimmed eyes. Mia’s smile faltered when his shoulders began to tremble. She looked on in paralyzed horror as Orden, that hard and unyielding man, bowed forward over his outstretched legs and buried his face within his huge hands. The first wet sniff had Mia’s chest splintering into a thousand little pieces. Two steps and she was by his side, her hand laid on his shoulder in silent comfort and understanding. Orden shook harder.

He had spent so many years blaming himself for their deaths. So many years thinking that he had failed them, only to now find that they had done that themselves. Mia’s eyes burned for him. For the pain and guilt he’d endured for so long, now suddenly lifted. The calluses along the base of Orden’s fingers scraped against Mia’s knuckles as he covered her hand with his and squeezed gently.

Color slowly crept into the forest around them, the air fragrant with the fresh scent of pine and the slight undertone of decaying leaves. Beams of watery sunlight filtered through the canopy to lay in swatches over the glossy leafed plants growing between the trees. Mia stared at one such plant, her eyes fixed and unseeing beneath lowered brows.

“You’re frowning.”

Mia blinked and looked down. The skin around Orden’s eyes was swollen and red but his eyes themselves appeared clearer, brighter. “No I’m not,” Mia said. She looked away before he could contradict her, her gaze sliding over their small camp.

“Yes, you are. What’s wrong?”

“We should pack up.” Mia said, her feet already moving.

“Mia.” She went still, her fingers just brushing against the smooth wooden handle of the iron tea pot when Orden’s voice, still thick with spent emotion, brought her up short.

“What?” Mia said, feigning a lightness she didn’t feel. She picked the teapot out of the ashes of last night’s fire and straightened, her back to him.

She could hear the faint trace of frustration lacing his words as Orden asked, “What is troubling you?”

Mia’s eyes drifted shut. A second later she answered, “What do you mean?” It was an effort to keep her movements casual and untroubled as she emptied the contents of the teapot into the ashes. Hidden coals hissed and a cloud of steam and ash billowed up.

When she turned, Orden stood before her, effectively blocking her path and any further attempts at avoidance. She hadn’t even heard him get up. “I don’t understand,” Orden was looking at her like she was a code he had to crack but had no idea where to begin, “why aren’t you relieved?” Like he was. She could see it in the way he now held himself. A terrible weight had been lifted from Orden’s shoulders and he stood taller because of it. The deep lines of his face smoothed away.

Mia puffed a breath through her nose and felt herself deflate. Her eyes drifted down to the teapot in her hands, to the horses grazing at the edge of camp. When she again met Orden’s gaze she was shaking her head. “Because,” she said, “it doesn’t make any difference.”

“It makes all the difference,” Orden argued.

“To you!” Mia backed out of his reach, dislodging the hands he’d placed on her arms. They fell to his side as he stared at her, the light in his eyes extinguished. Mia’s stomach gave a little twist at that look. She took a deep breath and in a softer voice said, “I am so happy for you Orden. I am so glad that you can finally have some peace, but this—this doesn’t change anything for me. I’m still weak.” Still a coward. Orden’s eyes flashed with denial, his mouth opening to argue. Mia held up a hand to stop whatever assurances he might have offered.

A sad little smile settled on Mia’s lips, “Besides,” she said, “you and I both know that there was never any danger of Vander and I falling in love.” A breath of surprised laughter escaped him and Orden shook his head in agreement, his beard twitching.

He reached for her hand, and Mia let him take it, shifting the cast-iron teapot under her other arm. They stared at each other for a long moment. Orden’s eyes were warm as he squeezed her fingers. “You are stronger than you think, Mia Astor. You will come to know it before the end.”

Mia did not look away, did not hide the tears that swam in her eyes. She released a shaky breath. “Maybe,” she smiled. “But for right now, I think we should probably pack up.”

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