Fire in the Sky
Two weeks passed and they still had no leads on the ring. Baely couldn’t remember such a thing existing, and everyone they talked to in the palace had conflicting ideas about what might have happened to Mercutio’s or Elysiaa’s effects. Kenneth suggested that they go to the Archives, where if a relic wasn’t stored in the building there was a record of where it was. With Cassie’s basic training finished they had nothing holding them back. Kenneth bought train tickets to the nearby city where the Archives was located and Finn overdid it on the preparations. Food, weapons, emergency supplies, she even managed to get some servants to go to Earth to bring back most of the clothes she and Cassie owned.
Standing on the train platform Cassie couldn’t help feeling like this was it—everything was finally starting.
“Cassady, can I speak with you for a moment?” Morris pulled her aside, away from the few servants that had accompanied the four of them down here. Kenneth had insisted that they keep their departure as secret as possible so that they’d be harder to track. It was nice not to be surrounded by people kissing up to her and telling her what to do for once.
“What is it, Morris?”
He pulled some crumpled paper out of his pocket. “I wanted to give these to you earlier but…well…I should have given them to you earlier. So here, take them now.”
He handed her two envelopes. Once was neatly addressed to Finn, as if the Morgans had handed Charlotte this letter to drop in the post box. The other only had Cassie’s name scrawled across the front in her mother’s sloppy handwriting. “Letters?” Cassie said.
“Your mother gave them to me a while ago,” Morris said. “I’m sorry. I suppose I thought that whatever was in them might change your mind, and I didn’t want that. I know you have this image of me as some kind of meddling sycophant, but it’s not the throne I’m loyal to. You’re a good kid, and these past couple of weeks you’ve really made me believe that you can do this. You could be even better than Queen Audrey or anyone else ever was. And your mother knows that, even if she won’t admit it. Even if she tries to stand in your way. Whatever I’ve done, you know it’s because I actually loved your grandmother and her father, don’t you? To honor them I have to protect what they believed in.”
Cassie put a hand on Morris’ shoulder. “I know. Why do you think I kept you as my steward? You are a meddling sycophant, but I know you just want to do the right thing. Thanks for saying you believe in me.”
He bowed. “I always will, Your Majesty.”
Cassie went back over to the others. Kenneth was talking to the conductor while Finn was going through her bag making sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. Cassie handed her the letter.
“What is this?” Finn said, standing. She looked down at the neatly printed return address in the corner. “My parents? Where did you get this?”
“Morris gave it to me. I think they sent it through my mom. See, I got one too.” Cassie held up her mother’s letter before stuffing it into one of the side pockets on her bag.
“You’re not going to read it?”
Cassie shrugged. “It’s going to be a long train ride. I can read how disappointed she is in me later. What do the Morgans have to say?”
Finn unfolded the letter and read it quickly to herself. She laughed softly. “It sounds like I went off to camp. ‘Be careful, drink a lot of water, we gave extra sunscreen to those men who took your clothes, remind Cassie to wear some too.’” Finn looked up. “I wonder what your mom told them about where we are.”
“No idea,” Cassie said. “But she’s good at making up stories.”
Finn whistled softly. “Aw, that’s low.”
Kenneth walked back over. “Well, he says we’re ready to board. You two all set?”
“Yeah,” Cassie reached down and made sure her bag was zipped up. When she threw the thing over her shoulder it stuck up over her head and she had to step back to balance herself. “Why are we taking the train anyway? I thought you said it was safe to teleport again.”
“Teleport?” Kenneth brushed off the unfamiliar word. “We can transport if you want, but it’s always better to go by land when you can. Too much magic wears on the body.”
“That’s enough to convince me,” Finn said, hefting her own backpack. “Besides, a nice relaxing train ride sounds pretty normal for a change.”
The ride took over ten hours. According to the map Kenneth had, they were crossing Renalia’s entire northern continent. The train barreled through a long tunnel under the mountains, following the range northwest for miles before turning north toward Vertiis, the city where the Archives was located. The conversation petered in and out as they traveled. Cassie took a nap through most of the tunnel, and then Kenneth slept until their arrival. Finn got a little queasy when the train slowed to a stop, but the conductor himself helped her off the train and gave her a handful of crackers. So with Finn’s mouth full, it was Cassie who turned to Kenneth as they stood outside the station and said, “I thought you said this was a city.”
“Vertiis is a city,” Kenneth said.
“This is like six buildings.” Cassie gestured out at the single street in front of them. The station was the biggest structure in sight.
“This isn’t the city,” Kenneth said. “This is just the station outpost. We need to walk to the actual city.”
“Walk?” Finn repeated. “We just rode in a train all day, how far do they expect us to walk?”
Cassie strained to look in all directions. Besides the mountains in the distance, there was only an empty field behind them and a forest to the north. “I don’t see anything around here. Where is this city?”
Kenneth pointed, “You see those trees? It’s in there.”
“I thought you said the Archives was run by phoenixes,” Finn said.
“It is,” Kenneth said, confused. “That’s why it’s in the forest. They like to be off the ground. I think it’s a bird thing.”
Finn looked back and forth from Kenneth to Cassie. “Am I the only one who sees it? Phoenixes in the woods? These aren’t the big red peacocks from Earth mythology, these birds are actually on fire. All the time. Last time I checked ‘forest’ and ‘fire’ were never good words to put together.”
Kenneth laughed. “I never thought of it like that. Phoenixfire isn’t the same as regular fire; it’s like feathers to them. I promise you, no phoenix has ever lit anything on fire that they didn’t want on fire.”
“That’s still not very comforting,” Finn said.
“You’d think they’d have some kind of fireproofing,” Cassie said, “just in case. I mean, especially for the records and stuff.”
Both girls looked to Kenneth, who shrugged. “Maybe? I honestly never thought about it before.”
The argument carried them all the way to the city. Bags over their shoulders they followed an overgrown dirt road away from the station and nearly two miles to the edge of the forest. It wasn’t until they’d gone some ways under the forest canopy before they stopped debating whether or not there could be different types of fire and looked around.
The wood reminded Cassie of Earth’s redwood forests, except the trees here dwarfed even the largest redwood. They were old, these trees, older maybe than Earth itself, their bark silver-tinged and rough. The canopy above was thick, branches fighting with each other to touch the sun. Cassie turned in a circle, searching the leaves. “I don’t see any city, Kenneth.”
He was looking at the ground for trail signs. Presumably he liked what he saw. “It should be just around here,” he said. He took a few steps further into the forest. Looking back over his shoulder told the two of them, “Now no making fun of me. I’m not a singer and I can’t whistle, so…” he turned back, lifted his head toward the canopy. Kenneth took a deep breath and sang a slow series of notes. His voice was slightly off-key, but he sang with confidence and his voice echoed all around them. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then a giant fireball exploded out of the trees.
The phoenix hit the ground stumbling, throwing his wings out for balance. Finn was right: these were not the phoenixes of Earth legend. Cassie had only really seen them from a distance before, bright like stars. But as she threw herself out of the way she got her first real look. The bird was about the size of a great dane, with a long arching neck and a wingspan that could blot out the sky. Its feathers were mottled, bright red across its breast fading into darker purples and golds around its body. Its head was relatively small for its size, though its beak was long and curved. If you looked closely, the feathers that were on fire seemed to be shades of blue and white at center of the flame. While a few flames danced along the phoenix’s crest, the fire burned mostly from the tail and flight feathers. And Kenneth was right, it wasn’t normal fire.
As the agitated phoenix got his bearings on the ground, his fire shrunk. It faded from bright orange-red to a tamer orange and purple, gently playing along its feathers. The phoenix folded its giant wings and looked around at them anxiously. “You’re early,” he said with a clack of his beak. “I wasn’t expecting…I wasn’t ready. Please, don’t tell the Archivist.”
“We won’t, I promise,” Kenneth assured him. “As long as you let us in.”
“Right!” he jumped a little. Cassie was amused to see how wide a berth Finn was giving the phoenix. When he jumped an inch she jumped a mile. The phoenix screeched up toward the canopy. A quieter squawk echoed back. “Ingrate,” the phoenix muttered. He turned to Cassie. “I apologize for our slowness, your majesty. It really is a great honor to have you here. My name is Meerin, I’m so happy to meet you.” He bowed to her with a sweep of his beak.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” Cassie said awkwardly. “I’m really glad that the Archivist can accommodate us.”
There was a loud creak as a winch came to life, lowering a large wooden platform from the forest canopy. Meerin looked relieved to see it. They all stepped back as the platform hit the ground with a thump, unsettling the undergrowth. “Please, get on,” the phoenix said. He took off and flapped back into the canopy in a swish of flame as the three of them climbed onto the platform and rode it slowly upwards into the sky. It was a bit unnerving to watch the forest floor recede below them, but as soon as they crossed the barrier into the leaves all Cassie’s fear melted away.
It was like emerging into another world. The moving platforms let off onto a stand that looked almost like it was growing out of the tree itself. It was thick and strong and led to the carved doorway of a kind of tree house built into the trunk. As she looked around, the city appeared like a cave that had been hollowed out of the thick greenery. Branches stuck out at odd intervals as perches for the phoenixes, but there were platforms and hanging rooms everywhere, a seemingly never-ending network of ladders and rooms, open and closed, weaving through the treetops.
With much flapping, Meerin landed before them on the stand. “Welcome to Vertiis, your Majesty,” he said.
Meerin led them across rope bridges and plank walkways and through hollow rooms carved like tunnels through tree trunks. Sometimes he took flight and they followed the wispy trail of flames behind him. The city itself was like a maze, every piece connected to the others in an endless network. The Archivist had set them up with rooms in one of the bigger inns, near to the city center. They climbed a spiral stair to a set of rooms nestled in the arm of a tree branch. The proprietress fluffed her feathers and told them proudly how these rooms were specially built for human guests. Cassie bowed and smiled, so many phoenixes around her that she was seriously worried about catching fire.
Finally, though, they were left alone. Finn threw herself across Cassie’s bed while Kenneth sank into a chair in the corner. Cassie settled into the window seat. She looked out, the entire sprawling city beneath her. “This place is amazing,” Cassie said. “I’d never have guessed that something like this could exist in the treetops. Did the phoenixes really build all of this?”
“Most of it,” Kenneth said, “Despite Finn’s concerns about fire safety.”
“I concede that the city is not on fire but I reserve judgment about why,” Finn said.
Cassie and Kenneth both laughed. Kenneth continued, “I don’t know too much about the city’s construction, but as far as Phoenixes are concerned this place is exactly their style, all these interconnecting levels and pieces instead of whole buildings. It’s like a series of nests. You should see their capital city in the Cellar Canyons. There are places there you can only get to with wings.”
“You’ve been there, too?” Finn said. “Is it part of your training to visit every city in the realm?”
“That’d certainly be a nice life,” Kenneth said. “But when you consider how big the realm is, I’ve barely seen any of it. My mother loves to travel, so I’ve at least been to all the ‘must see’ places. Vertiis and the canyons count on that list. For a species without hands, the phoenixes are surprisingly skilled architects.”
“Well I suppose the magic helps a lot,” Cassie pointed out. She touched her wand at her belt. “Baely said that the elements shape all matter, from the ground beneath us to our own bodies. Phoenixes are elemental creatures, so working with wood would be especially easy for them.”
“That’s true,” Kenneth agreed. “You would know more about that than me now, wouldn’t you?”
Cassie shrugged. “I wouldn’t quite say that. Sure, I finally learned to whip up a light breeze but that’s about it. It’s harder than anything else that I’ve tried.”
“That’s because it’s outside your discipline,” Kenneth pointed out. “All the elementals I know are chaotic people. I think it takes a certain amount of…flexibility to mess with base matter like that.”
“Maybe,” Cassie said, looking out the window. As the sun set, lights were starting to come on all over the city. Like the rest of the Vertiis, the lights floated, steady and glowing at intervals along the walkways and platforms. Cassie wondered who lit them, and how they kept them going. More magic she only barely understood. With a shake of her head, she stood and stretched. “Either way, it’s tomorrow’s problem. The Archivist said he’d meet with us after dinner, so I’m guessing that’s about an hour or so from now. Do you guys want to check out the city, maybe find some food?”
“Sounds good to me,” Finn said, standing.
The three of them wandered the many twists and turns of Vertiis, always careful never to look down. They passed more and more people, mostly phoenixes, as the day ended. Kenneth pointed out the Archives, the building at the heart of the city. It was carved in and around a tree so large that a hundred redwoods might have fit easily inside it. It had dozens of entrances, each guarded by at least one brightly lit watchman. Cassie was impressed at the ingenuity of the design, every room blossoming outward from the center of the tree, stacked in a tight spiral that cut through the trunk like a row of stitches. Barring any sort of fire-related problems, Cassie could see that this would indeed be a safe place for the secrets of the Craftlings.
They found a hanging platform that had seats as well as perches to eat dinner. Phoenixes were hunting birds, the chef explained as he specially cooked their meat for them, so they didn’t have much else in the way of cuisine. But for the tourists, he kept some bread and made a nice sauce to go with their food, and it was a fair enough meal. Cassie had decided long ago never to ask what was in the food. Not after Morris gave her a long and disturbing lecture about the differences between meat animals on Earth and Renalia.
As they ate, the three of them fell into a comfortable silence. Which is how Cassie was able to overhear the conversation of two phoenixes perched nearby, sharing a very large chunk of raw meat.
“I swear it’s true!” one phoenix said rather loudly, his flames flaring up. “The Captain even doubled the guard tonight, in case he tries something.”
“I don’t doubt you,” his friend said, “but it just doesn’t make sense. Why would a Dacruum come here?”
Cassie’s ears immediately pricked up. She leaned back a little in her chair to listen.
“Well if you ask me the bloke was stark-raving mad,” the first phoenix said. “Circling around under us in the forest, going on and on about how the future of both our races depended on us letting him in.”
“Are you serious?”
The first phoenix lifted his beak. “By my own ashes, I swear. The Captain flew down to drive him off, and he gave this whole speech about how a horrible catastrophe was coming and only the knowledge of the Dacruum and the Craftlings together could prevent it. All he needed was to search through the Archives.”
“Ah,” the second phoenix said, “little devil. He wanted to spy out our secrets.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” the first phoenix agreed. “But whoever sent him didn’t send in their best. As if we wouldn’t see right through that act. Poor kid would be better off as a laborer, where he doesn’t have to use his brain.”
“Isn’t that what put him in the army in the first place?” the second phoenix joked. After that they devolved into ribbing each other about their jobs and Cassie lost interest.
She leaned forward across the table. “Did you guys hear any of that?”
“You mean the hens over there?” Finn whispered. “I heard. What does this mean?”
“What are you two talking about? Were you eavesdropping?”
“Yeah,” Cassie and Finn said at the same time. Cassie went on, “that’s one of the city guards behind us. Apparently the Dacruum have tried to get into Vertiis.”
“What?” Kenneth’s eyes shot with yellow like lightening strokes. “When?”
“They didn’t say,” Cassie said. She repeated the story they’d overheard. “If that guy’s telling the truth, then one man doesn’t sound like too much of a problem, but he could just be a scout or something. Do you think they know we’re here?”
“No, there’s no way they could,” Kenneth said. “It can’t be an attack. Maybe it’s something else?”
“I don’t like what he said about a catastrophe,” Finn said. “Doesn’t that sound a little too familiar?”
“You mean the Ultimate Power?” Kenneth said. “Why would it be? The Dacruum are the ones summoning the thing.”
“Maybe the King and his generals are,” Cassie pointed out, “But I won’t believe there aren’t some Dacruum that would rather their leaders don’t destroy the universe. If this guy was on his own, and willing to cross into our territory, he might be trying to do the same thing we are.”
“So he is a nut job,” Finn said. “However he found out about the Ultimate Power, he can’t expect to stop it himself.”
“Maybe,” Kenneth said thoughtfully, “as long as he really is alone. Even if it’s not an attack, it could be a strategical maneuver. The Archives has information dating back before the Order was established. If they’ve hit a wall with the Ultimate Power, something we know might help them.”
“So they send in an innocent guy with a story about stopping the summoning and find out all they want,” Finn said.
Cassie shook her head. “I think we need to talk to the Captain of the Guard.”
Kenneth stood. “Let’s go to the Archives. The Archivist is kind of like the mayor around here; he’ll know what’s going on. We can summon the Captain there.”
They met in the Archives’ central chamber. The core of the tree trunk was huge, tunnels branching off in every direction. Ladders led to the corridors through which the phoenixes swooped with ease. The ceiling was engraved with a wooden mural depicting historical scenes, most of them about phoenixes. The Archivist flew down to meet them. He was supposedly old for a phoenix, but Cassie couldn’t quite tell the difference. His fire did stay closer to his feathers and flared up less often. Cassie remembered the old story about phoenixes bursting into flame and emerging from the ashes. She wondered how much of that was true.
“I don’t think we need to bother the guard here, Your Majesty,” he said to Cassie when she brought up what they’d heard at dinner. “We have the situation completely under control. If they try anything tonight, we will be prepared.”
“And what if they don’t?” Cassie asked. “What can you tell me about the guy that came here? Did he give you any information about this catastrophe?”
“My Queen, the man was either a lunatic or a liar. We do not speak with Dacruum. We drove him off and are prepared for any retaliation. I had hoped that this would not affect your visit here, and for that I deeply apologize.” He dipped his long neck in a bow.
Cassie sighed. “It’s all right. Just…if he comes back, have the guards arrest him or something. Whatever his motivation, I’d like to know more about it.”
The Archivist ruffled his feathers anxiously. “Well if what the guard told me is true, he should not be coming back. The boy was a loner, and a bit unbalanced. Perhaps he figured something out. This catastrophe of his certainly sounded like a doomsday prediction. I was there at the Consulate; I know what he might have meant. But if that is the case, I trust you far more than any Dacruum to protect me. Any artifacts that will fulfill the prophecy will go to you, Your Majesty, and no one else.”
“So you do think he was trying to prevent the summoning of the Ultimate Power?” Kenneth asked.
“Perhaps,” the Archivist said. “Does it matter?”
“Only if he knows something we don’t,” Cassie said. She shook her head. “But it makes no difference now. We should focus on what we came here for. I know we’re putting you out, coming this late, but we wanted to start our research as soon as possible.”
“I completely understand, Your Majesty.” The Archivist seemed more comfortable with the subject change. He fluffed his feathers proudly. “I said it, I said the very day of your coronation, that you would be the one to do right by the people. That’s why I took your side in the Consulate. Research, learning, that is what will save us from this Dacruum threat. Follow me, I know exactly where to start.”
On the ground, Phoenixes waddled, their claws digging into the floor. They followed the Archivist down a tunnel that led further down the trunk. The rooms they passed were packed with books, scrolls, tapestries and files upon files of records. There was a room full of old coins, and another with thousands of vases. The Archivist took them to a circular room that looked out over the southern curve of the city. The shelves here were filled with yellowing papers and small worn books. “These are the bulk of the first-hand accounts that we have,” the Archivist told them. “I myself have written several papers on the subject of the effect of Mercutio’s Rite. There are no accounts by Mercutio himself, of course, but many of his contemporaries wrote down their observations of him, and then of course there was his wife. There is a very interesting journal here written by her maid, where the woman recorded everything that Elysiaa would mumble, and some of them would honestly shock you.”
The Archivist started waddling through the shelves, carefully pulling journals and papers with his beak and putting them on the table by the window. He chattered about life in the Order five hundred years ago and the problems that Queen Aurora, Mercutio and Elysiaa’s daughter, had to deal with. Cassie turned to her companions. “I think you two should start here. Read what you can about Mercutio’s movements. It may not tell us what he learned, but at least it will tell us where he learned it. I’ll try and find the ring.”
“Is something wrong your majesty?” the Archivist said, head tilted inquisitively.
“No, this is perfect,” Cassie said quickly, turning around. “It is a great place to start. But there was something else I was wondering about. An artifact that we hoped would be here.”
“An artifact of Mercutio’s?” the Archivist said. He seemed to consider. “I don’t know that we have such a thing. I can show you some pieces we have from that era, though they aren’t many. Aurora gave up several items; perhaps one was her father’s.”
Leaving Finn and Kenneth behind, Cassie followed the Archivist back up through the building. She had to climb a couple of ladders, but he was always patient with her, waiting at the top. As they walked, Cassie asked, “How come you guys don’t put some of this stuff in a museum or something? I mean, record-keeping for the whole order seems like enough without all this extra stuff.”
“Oh I don’t think of it as extra,” the Archivist said wistfully. “Art, literature, it’s a record of our history as much as births and deaths and tax receipts. People need to be able to come here and see the scope of where our Order has been. A museum wouldn’t have the capacity to do such a thing.”
“Maybe,” Cassie said. “Still, it’s a wonder anyone can find their way through here. It’s like a labyrinth.”
“One could make the argument that life is a labyrinth as well,” the Archivist pointed out. “In fact, many have.” He turned into a small, windowless room that was lined with display cases. Some of the objects looked so old, Cassie was sure they would disintegrate if exposed to the air. She ran her hand along the case. Inside were pieces of armor, carved wands, a horn made of bone. “Over here,” the Archivist said from across the room.
Cassie followed him to a table in the corner. “What is this stuff?” she asked.
“Everything we have from the era of Mercutio,” he said. “This charm belonged to Elysiaa. She was rescued with it, and she gave it to her daughter on her deathbed. No one’s quite sure what it does, so I wouldn’t recommend touching it.”
“You said that Aurora gave up her parents things?” Cassie said, scanning through the various objects. “Why would she do that?”
The Archivist shifted his wings in a bird shrug. “What reason did she have not to? Her father tore apart the universe, leaving our people scared and in danger. There was chaos and rebellion everywhere. When Elysiaa died in childbirth, there was no one to rule the Order, and the Consulate could only control the people so much. Aurora spent her whole childhood with this burden facing her, and as soon as she was able she took it up and bore it till her death. There’s not a one of us who didn’t blame her parents for what happened, her included. Their keepsakes would hardly be treasures.”
“Maybe,” Cassie said. It wasn’t the first bad word she’d heard against Mercutio, but still she felt an odd protectiveness to her ancestor. Perhaps, as his heir, she was more connected to him than anyone else. If only she could understand why he’d done what he had. “Can I open this?” Cassie said, pointing to a small, obsidian box.
“I think so. If I remember correctly, the box is worth more than what’s inside it.
Cassie picked it up and carefully unscrewed the top. When she saw the contents, she smiled. “That’s where you’re wrong.”
They made the journal room their base of operations. When Cassie returned with the ring, she asked the Archivist that they not be disturbed unless absolutely necessary. Finn swept the papers on the table aside and Cassie set the ring in the center. For a few moments, they just sat there, staring at it.
It was, as Elysiaa’s journal had shown, just a piece of a whole ring. The circle itself was intact, but thin, as if it would pair with the other pieces to make a full band. The setting still bore its inscriptions, but it was jagged and broken. The real victory though, was the stone. It had been in the obsidian box with this piece, round and perfect as the Star of Rhiath itself, a black opal that caught the light like the heart of an ember.
“I can’t believe it,” Finn said. “We’ve been here for less than an hour and we already found the ring.”
“One-third of it at least,” Kenneth corrected. “But that’s more than enough. With this, we can track down the others.”
“And how do we do that?” Cassie asked. “A spell?”
“Not exactly,” Kenneth said. “First Discipline tracking spells are messy. They require a physical trail to follow. This is the part where I come in handy. This bit of ring is part of a whole; it belongs with the other pieces. Its essence, and theirs, will resonate a magical frequency that I can track with my power.”
“Its essence?” Cassie said. She tried to remember if Baely had mentioned such a thing in her training. “Is that like a magical aura?”
“Kind of,” Kenneth said. “In the Third Discipline we like to think of it as a reflection of being. When you touch something, you leave a fingerprint, right? Well your essence is like that fingerprint, except it fades over time. Sort of like a ripple. The farther away from you, the core, the thinner the frequency gets until it disappears. But these parts of the ring will all have the same essence. They’re calling out to each other. All I have to do is isolate it as a source and follow where it leads.”
“Are you sure you can do that?” Finn said.
Kenneth grinned. “Child’s play. It’s the first thing you learn in the Third Discipline. Of course this will take a lot more power than simple trackings, but with Cassie’s help it should be no problem. Then, if Elysiaa is right, the ring will show us exactly how to perform the Rite.”
“Can it really be that easy though?” Cassie said, picking up the stone and examining it. “Finding Mercutio’s research, reversing the Rite, I thought this was supposed to be the hard part. If it was so simple, someone could have done it a long time ago.”
The sound of a distant explosion shook the trees around them. All three of them stood, racing to the window. Smoke was drifting through the city like an ominous cloud. “Nothing is ever easy,” Kenneth said.
They ran into the Archivist in the central hall. He squawked when he saw them. “Your Majesty! Everything is under control. Please, just return to your research and we’ll—” Another explosion went off, louder than the first.
“I’m going to the gates,” Kenneth announced. “Whatever’s going on, it’ll have something to do with that Dacruum from the other day. I can help.”
“But my lord…” the Archivist said nervously.
Kenneth ignored him and turned to the girls. “You two should stay here. It’s the safest building in the city.”
“No way,” Cassie said. She pulled her wand out of her belt. “I may not be an expert yet, but I am the Queen and I won’t sit by and let people get hurt. Besides, if this has anything to do with the Ultimate Power and our quest, I need to be there.”
“Me too,” Finn said. She threw up her hands when both her companions tried to argue. “I may not have magic, but I know how to protect myself. And I won’t let you go alone, Cassie.”
Another explosion went off accompanied by the sounds of shouting and flapping wings. The Archivist shifted nervously from foot to foot. “Our guards have things under control,” he protested. “I really don’t think that you should risk your lives, Your Majesty.”
Cassie glanced at Finn and Kenneth, both resolute. “We’re going,” she told the Archivist. “Now.”
Kenneth and Finn ran together back to the inn to get their weapons, letting Cassie arrive at the city gates first. The large, empty platforms were completely transformed. Huge chunks of the foliage around them were missing, letting moonlight in on the shaded city and opening a clear view of the ground beneath. Cassie was shunted back and forth by the guards gathered there. There were so many phoenixes about that it was a virtual bonfire. Still, the fires offered no heat—brushing by a phoenix felt like the touch of any other feathered bird. So, Cassie pushed through them. The few that turned to snap at her, recognized her instantly, and made way. Finally, Cassie stepped up behind what had to be the Captain of the Guard. She peeked around him to see the attackers.
Five men stood on the ground. They were dressed all in black and hooded. With a chill Cassie remembered the Dogs that had attacked them outside of Gran’s house. These men were more heavily armed though. Two with longbows, a sword on every hip, and one of them held a black staff that he held up before him like a shield. “Try it again,” the man with the staff was shouting, “we have all night.”
“Damn Dogs,” the Captain grumbled. Cassie touched him on the back and he jumped, nearly knocking her off the platform with his wing. “Your Majesty! What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to help,” Cassie said. “What’s going on?”
The Captain’s feathers flamed up red. “The hunters are here demanding from us what we do not have.”
Cassie knew the answer before he could say it. “The man, who came before. They’re hunting him.”
“Yes. I don’t know why, and I don’t care.” He raised his voice so the guards around him could hear, “any threat to Vertiis will be extinguished.” A screeching cheer rose up among the phoenixes. A pair took off, sweeping downward toward the dogs, their feather-fire flaring until it trailed behind them like the tail of a shooting star. In unison, they flapped their wings and turned back up, the fire hurtling downward, combining into a giant ball. The bomb hit a magical shield that flared black. Cassie covered her eyes as the explosion rang out, vibrating through the forest.
The phoenixes cheered, but Cassie looked down apprehensively. Whatever combinations of fire the phoenixes dropped didn’t seem enough to pierce the Dacruum shield. And they weren’t taking it quietly either. “Behind you!” Cassie screamed, as two arrows flew straight for the phoenixes that had dropped the bomb. At her warning they swerved. Still, one arrow took a bird in the side, and the other only narrowly missed. Below, the archers reloaded.
Kenneth and Finn arrived at this point, shouting and shoving their way to the front. Cassie turned to meet them. “Thank god you’re here,” she said. “There’s already one person injured.”
“Two ma’am,” the Captain said, over her shoulder. “But not to worry, they will heal. Our enemy will not.”
“Who is the enemy?” Kenneth asked. “What are we dealing with?”
“It’s the Dogs,” Cassie said. “They’re hunting the man who came here the other day and they won’t leave.” She turned to the Captain. “Did they just not believe you when you said he left?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Either that or they think we have more information to give.”
“Maybe I should talk to them then,” Cassie said.
Kenneth grabbed her shoulder. “No. That would be the worst thing you could do. They’ll know who you are in an instant. We can’t let the Emperor find out about our quest. The Dogs will abandon all other prey to hunt you.”
“Then I’ll go,” Finn said.
“Absolutely not,” Kenneth and Cassie said in unison.
Finn made a frustrated noise. “Stop it you two. Kenneth would be recognized just as easily as Cassie. And these guys don’t seem willing to listen to the phoenixes. You can shield me from a distance, can’t you Kenneth?”
“Not too far,” he said.
“I’m not going down there. Just lower me a little on the platform and let me try to reason with them. If anything happens, you can both swoop in with your fireworks without being seen. It’s the only way.”
“We could kill them,” the Captain pointed out.
“Can you?” Finn asked, raising an eyebrow.
The Captain ruffled his feathers. He turned to Cassie. “It’s a solid plan,” he admitted. “They just keep yelling for us to give up the boy. If we can convince them he’s not here before they decide to take further action, we’ll save a lot of blood and trouble.”
Cassie sighed. “Are you sure you can protect her?” she asked Kenneth.
“I can shield her,” he said. “That doesn’t mean she’ll be safe.”
Twisting her wand in her hand, Cassie felt the attack spells that Mercutio had laid there. Would they be enough to protect her friend? Could she even get them to work? Cassie touched Finn on the arm. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Cassie twisted her mouth. “And I can’t talk you out of it?” Finn shook her head. “Fine.” Cassie hugged her friend. “If you die, I’ll never forgive you.”
The Captain called for his men to stand down. Cassie settled on the platform next to him, her wand at the ready. Kenneth set himself up in a corner that still had foliage, staking a few arrows into the platform in front of him. He favored the short bow, but despite its name, it was still half-again as tall as he was. He leaned against the tree trunk, and with a sweep of his hand he surrounded Finn in purple light. She gave him a shaky smile as she stepped onto the platform and the Captain lowered her toward the Dogs.
“Not exactly what we wanted,” the man with the staff said, “but we’ll take a hostage if you’re offering.”
Finn gripped the pommel of her sword to give herself courage. “I’m here to parley with you,” she said in her most commanding voice. “The man you’re looking for isn’t here anymore. If you’re really tracking him, his scent must lead away from here. What more do you want from us?”
“Finally, someone who’s not squawking at me.” The man with the staff stepped forward. “Your bird friends are too keen on firing first and asking questions later. We know the boy isn’t here. But he also knows that we’re tracking him. Just tell me what he said, and if he went up there, let us sniff around. We have to know where he’s going.”
“He didn’t set foot up here, if that helps you,” Finn said. “We turned him away faster than you.”
“He must have said something,” the Dog insisted. “If he tried to get into this city, he’ll have given you a reason. Anything.”
“And why should I tell you? Who is this man you’re hunting, anyway?”
“That’s none of your concern”
“It is if you expect to get any information out of me.”
Cassie noted that the archers both notched arrows to the string. She prayed that Finn wouldn’t say anything else to provoke them. Behind her, Kenneth seemed distracted. He motioned for the Captain of the Guard, and together they whispered, pointing at the men below. She wanted to go over to them, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Finn and the archers.
“The boy is a traitor,” the Dog was saying. “Nothing more than a criminal and a rabble-rouser. Even you should understand our desire to bring him to justice.”
“Before he rouses the rabble?”
“Before he causes more trouble than he’s worth. Now tell me what happened here.”
Finn tried to adopt a casual demeanor. “I wish there was more I could say. Or that there was more I could keep from you. But there isn’t. He came, asked to enter, and we turned him away. Whatever brought him here; he didn’t share it with us. As for where he’s going, why don’t you try that way?” She pointed off into the forest.
The Dog scowled and started to lift his staff but with a sudden thwack, an arrow sprouted from the chest of the man to his left. The Dog threw himself sideways, the archers turning their bows upwards to the platform. Kenneth stepped out from his corner. “The shield is down!” he shouted to the phoenixes around them. “Attack!”
Cassie flattened herself against the platform as a curtain of fire rose above her head. Phoenixes swirled everywhere, their wings crossing in the air, fire of all colors winding together. The archers below loosed arrow after arrow as the other Dogs threw up new spells to try to deflect the oncoming attack. Finn was yanked upward by the shield, purple light flinging her back onto the platform. Cassie grabbed her arm and pulled her down. “What’s happening?” Finn asked.
“Kenneth started an attack. I don’t really know—” another explosion sounded, fire leaping upward in a pillar of light. The forest around them trembled, pieces of the enormous trees crumbling like bergs off a glacier. The phoenixes swerved back up, hovering just under the canopy, waiting for the smoke to clear. Slowly, Cassie went to the edge of the platform and looked down. Without their shield to protect them, the Dogs had felt the full onslaught of phoenix power. Only some twisted metal and heaps of ash remained of four of the men. A few feet away from the crater, the man with the staff, their leader, had somehow survived, though his hair and clothes were badly singed.
Raising his head, he looked up at the birds around him and scowled. He held the staff up and Cassie could see that part of it had been burnt away. “You will never defeat the might of the Dacruum!” he shouted. “Our strength is ultimate!” Above him, the phoenixes swooped down, seemingly for another attack, and the Dog turned, moving his staff to protect himself from the next firebomb. But the phoenixes merely floated to the side while, sure and true, an arrow lodged itself firmly in the Dog’s neck. Cassie looked at Kenneth, lowering his bow, and a chill ran down her spine as she saw his smile.
They all stood and watched as the Dog choked and sputtered, long minutes of struggling before he finally collapsed. The silence lasted no more than a moment. Then, all at once, it was back to business. The Captain dispatched a team of phoenixes to clean up the bodies and the crater. Someone went to fetch landscapers to heal the trees where they’d been touched by fire. Cassie looked up at the sky, now visible through the holes in the canopy. The moon was still high, and the sky littered with stars. How long had they been here, she wondered. How much had happened in so few hours.
Kenneth walked proudly up to Cassie and Finn. “Are you two all right?”
“Uh…yeah,” Cassie said. “What about you? What was that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was it really necessary to kill them?” Cassie gestured to the crater below.
“How could it not be? Five of the most dangerous assets the enemy has come knocking at our door and we’re supposed to let them go?”
“No…but they weren’t attacking. Once they knew we didn’t have any information they’d have just left.”
“They would only have left if they were sure they were outmatched. And with Finn out there exposed, I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“I thought you were supposed to be protecting me,” Finn said.
“As much as I appreciate your faith in me, I told you it wasn’t safe. Their arrows can pierce my shield as easily as mine could theirs. As far as I’m concerned I acted just in time. They weren’t going to accept an answer of no. If they could capture you, you’d be tortured for information, and if they couldn’t, you’d die.” Kenneth touched Finn on the arm with forced gentility. “You wanted to know what war is like. This is only the beginning.”
Cassie wanted to argue, she wanted to protest that murder like that was what this whole quest was meant to prevent, but she couldn’t. These few deaths, they were nothing compared with what she’d seen in her future. What if the Dogs had attacked? Could she have done what Kenneth did? Could she kill in cold blood to protect the people she cared about?
“I don’t like this,” Finn said, “any of it. We shouldn’t have had to kill anybody. Why confront us when they could have just kept following his trail? They’re supposed to be the best hunters in the universe, right? What could he have told us that would have changed their hunt?”
“It’s not about what clues we might have given them,” Kenneth said. “It’s about what he might have revealed to us.”
The Captain of the Guard waddled up and Kenneth turned to talk to him. They congratulated each other, and began discussing the safety of the city during rebuilding. Cassie pulled Finn aside. “Do you think that’s true?”
“What Kenneth said?” Finn looked over at him, bow and quiver still slung over his shoulder. “Maybe. Maybe they just thought we were lying, and hiding him somewhere. But if what they said is true, and that man was a traitor, he could know something about the Ultimate Power that they don’t want him revealing. I mean, why else would a ‘rabble-rouser’ come all the way out here?”
Cassie put a hand to her forehead and shook her head slowly. “There are a lot of reasons the Dacruum might look for Mercutio’s research. But a traitor…he could know something. Something we need to know.”
Cassie slept uneasily that night. It was her first night sleeping alone since she’d come to Renalia. She hadn’t realized how comforting Finn’s snoring presence was in that giant bed. The window had no glass, so the forest breeze blew freely through her room, carrying the scent of smoke and new growth. When she closed her eyes, Cassie couldn’t help but see the face of that Dog as the arrow pierced his throat, his eyes wide as he tried to breathe, choking on blood.
When dawn rose, she couldn’t stand it any longer. Cassie dressed and left her room. A few steps down the spiral stair, she noticed that Kenneth’s light was on. There were no doors, so she knocked on the wall. Kenneth was sitting at the table staring into space; he nearly jumped out of his chair. “Am I interrupting something?” Cassie said.
Kenneth ran his fingers through his hair, “No, of course not. You just surprised me. Come in.”
Cassie sat down across from him. “You don’t look like you got any sleep either. Is everything ok?”
“Yeah, of course.” Kenneth set the third of the ring down on the table. Cassie hadn’t seen the obsidian box where it sat by his elbow. “I’m just worried,” he said.
Cassie picked the ring up, turning it in her fingers so the gold caught the morning light. “About what?” she asked. When he didn’t respond she said, “Does this have anything to do with last night?”
“A little I guess,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad we got the ring, and I’m pretty sure we’re still off the Dacruum radar but…this whole situation just feels wrong to me.”
“Do you mean the men you killed or that guy they were looking for?”
“Both I guess,” Kenneth said. “Whatever it is they didn’t want us to know, it’s something we need to know. Think about it: we wouldn’t have known about this ring if it hadn’t been for those sketches in Elysiaa’s journal. She was held captive by the Dacruum for most of her life. Who knows what kind of information she left behind there. Maybe that man found some of it and he came here looking for this ring. Or worse, for us.”
“I don’t know,” Cassie said, “I don’t think it’s that. If it was, he wouldn’t be alone. Remember, the Dacruum don’t know that we know about the Ultimate Power. If this guy found out about it, any number of things could have driven him here. The Dogs could have just wanted to make sure we didn’t hear something we already knew.”
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“Maybe not,” Cassie said, setting down the ring again. “But it’s not like we can ask them anymore.”
“You’re still upset about that.”
Cassie shrugged. “Not upset just…I wasn’t prepared for it. I know I’ve been training these past couple weeks, but it’s one thing to see a vision in your head of people dying and a whole other to see it with your own eyes.”
Kenneth’s eyes were kind, a distant purple. “Your first death is hard, I know. There’d be something wrong with you if it didn’t affect you somehow. Your first kill is even worse. Nothing will ever clean that face from your mind. But it’s like what I said before: this is what we’re facing. Those deaths were necessary.”
“Were they?” Cassie said. “They didn’t learn anything that they could have reported back, we made sure of that. And maybe if we’d arrested one of them we could have found out what we weren’t supposed to know.”
“It’s not that simple,” Kenneth argued. “You or I couldn’t have gone down there, we’d have been shot on sight. And you saw how well the guards were doing. It was bad enough we let Finn get as close as she did. I appreciate your attempts at diplomacy, but sometimes we don’t have that choice. Those were dangerous men. The universe is better off without them.”
Cassie thought about the hooded man in Gran’s front yard, and his companion who threw fire. They wouldn’t have hesitated to kill her given half the chance. So why did she feel so bad about the deaths of other men just like them? “The last time I talked to my mom she said that becoming royalty meant living my life as if I’m constantly on a battlefield. She was right, wasn’t she?”
“Maybe,” Kenneth said. “But maybe not entirely. With those Dogs dead, there’s no reason for any of the Dacruum to suspect that you’re not safe and sound in the palace right now. If they’re not hunting us, we’ll have time. We’ll be safe at least for a little longer. I’m not saying that this will be our last fight, but there’s no reason to be afraid.”
Cassie chuckled softly. “I’ve been afraid for a while now. What I’m not is ready. How do you do it? What does it feel like?”
“That’s a loaded question.” Kenneth picked up the ring again and spun it against the table, waiting until it clattered to a halt. “I suppose it feels different every time. It certainly gets easier after a while. This time I was pretty separate from it. I was just happy to protect Finn and you. And the city, of course. The first time though?” He shook his head. “You know how they say that when you die your life flashes before your eyes?”
“You guys say that too?”
“Yeah. And the first time you kill someone, if you happen to look into their eyes…you can see it too. Not the life they’ve lived, but everything you’ve just taken away from them. In that moment when their eyes gloss over, all you can see is the years that once lay ahead of them—what they’d do right, what they’d do wrong, the people they might have loved or who might have loved them. It’s a burden that you have to carry for the rest of your life. That’s why it’s easier not to look at them, not to think about it. If you don’t…it almost becomes easy.”
Cassie touched her wand at her belt. Farand had showed her a dozen ways to kill a man with it, Baely dozens more. Maybe that part was easy. But if she thought about the grey faces of her vision, the blood, the black-haired boy dying in her lap, she knew that for her, at least, it would never be easy.
Kenneth must have recognized the look in her eyes. “Finn told me you don’t want to talk about what you saw in your vision, but it doesn’t have to be that way. What you said about war being inevitable, maybe that’s true. But we can postpone it. We can stop the Ultimate Power and put the universe back together, and however many people have to die on that road, it’ll be far less than it could have been.”
“You’re right,” Cassie said. “And I know that. But destiny has a funny way of kicking you in the ass. Less than a month ago I was a senior in high school and my biggest worry was whether or not they’d pick my speech for graduation. Now it’s you and Finn and me against all the odds. And you can count the numbers all you want but who’s to say how much bloodshed it’ll take to fulfill this prophecy?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Kenneth said. “You’re the one who’s seen the future and communed with the angels. But Audrey let me read that Book too. And you know what it showed me? A better world. I have to believe that somehow this prophecy and everything we’re doing now are what leads to that. Trust that maybe if destiny is pulling us in one direction, it’s the right direction.”
Cassie remembered what Anyu had said about the Book and its test. How it, of all things, had the power to see into your heart and divine the possible paths ahead. “As it is written,” she said, “so shall it be. Sometimes I think the more we know about the future, the less we know at all.”
“Probably,” Kenneth agreed. “But even if we didn’t know what we do, how much would it really change our actions? The Dacruum still need to be stopped. We’d still need the rings and Mercutio’s Rite. Can you say that if you didn’t feel destined to help, you wouldn’t?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t,” Cassie said. “But I probably would. I mean, look at Finn. Not a drop of magic in her, this isn’t even her fight, and she’s better at it than either of us.”
“She is something.” Kenneth smiled. “If you wanna reduce bloodshed, we can. We just have to do our best and trust that that’ll be enough.” He picked up the ring and fished its stone out of the box. “I think it’s time we get back on the ground. Why don’t you go wake up Finn and the two of you can have breakfast. Go back to the Archives, pick up any of those journals you think we’ll need. By the time you get back, I’ll know where we’re going next.”