The trip to Earth was even easier than the trip to Dragonworld. Kenneth was right, every transport got easier. This time they appeared in the middle of a field. They were well hidden from the road by a hedgerow, the hills behind them just beginning to bloom with wild heather. They had returned to the beginning of spring. “Where are we?” Cassie said, turning in a circle, “England?”
“Close,” Kenneth said. “We’re somewhere in central Ireland. There’s a wayhouse just down the road run by my friend Christian. I can’t believe I didn’t think he might have it.”
“What do you mean, wayhouse?” Finn asked. “Like an inn?”
“No. It’s…complicated. The planet has these natural magical currents that run under the plates. One of them goes across the northern Atlantic right through here. Christian’s job is to monitor it. From the wayhouse. It’s an old manor that’s been here for centuries.”
They walked along the hedgerow until they came to a gate, and then started up the road. “So who is this Christian?” Cassie asked. “How do you know him?”
“He used to work for my father before they posted him here,” Kenneth said. “He did a lot of work for Audrey actually, when we’d come to Earth. She’d always want to spend most of her time with you so I’d get Christian to help me with some of her duties. He’s technically the closest Craftling official to where you were.”
As promised the gate to the wayhouse manor was at the top of the hill. Kenneth pressed the intercom button and waved to the security camera. The gate automatically swung open. Kenneth led the way up the drive. A perfect line of trees flanked the road until it opened up into a circle in front of the house, a bed of primroses in its center. Up a flight of steps, standing in front of the open doors was a woman in her early fifties. She smiled and hurried down to greet them.
“Kenneth, dear,” she said pulling him into a hug. “It’s so good to see you.” She had a thick accent, but a sweet voice. Cassie was glad to finally hear some English again after weeks surrounded by Renalian. The woman’s tough brown hair was pulled back in a bun and her face was lined with years of bearing that smile. She was dressed in a lightweight pantsuit, and Cassie imagined that she was just like a senator’s wife.
“It’s good to see you too, Mary,” Kenneth said. He turned to the girls. “May I introduce Her Majesty Queen Cassady, and her Second the Lady Morgan.”
“My word.” Mary swept into a perfect curtsy despite the fact that she was wearing pants. “I had no idea you’d be bringing such company.” She stood. “You should have sent word, Kenneth. I apologize, Your Majesty for not being prepared.”
“Really it’s ok,” Cassie said, waving her hands. “We didn’t know we’d be coming at all until a little while ago. And trust me, I do not need the royal treatment. We don’t even have to stay the night.”
“Of course you have to stay the night!” Mary jumped forward and threw an arm around Cassie, drawing her toward the steps. “I won’t hear of anything less. You poor children look so tired. And so skinny!” She shook her head with a few tsks for good measure. “I’ll have to get at least one good meal into you before you go, make sure of that. Every time I see Kenneth I tell him he must eat better, but does he listen? Of course not. This is what happens when a boy is away from his mother for too long. Why, if my sons didn’t call me once a week I’d march myself right up to their doorsteps I would, you see if I don’t. Wesley!” Mary cried.
They’d reached the entry hall. Cassie pried herself away from Mary as they waited for Wesley to appear. Footsteps in the distance meant someone was coming at a run. Cassie raised her eyebrows at Kenneth who only smiled in return. He stepped up to Mary. “Actually Mary,” he said, “is Christian in? We need to speak with him.”
“Is that why you came, love?” she asked. “You yourself asked him to go to America a couple of weeks ago. He’s still there, some awful business about Dogs. I thought you’d have known that.”
“I did,” Kenneth said, “but I didn’t think it would take this long. He should have reported to me if there was something wrong.”
“I’m sure he did,” Mary said. “He’s been in contact with Tom since the beginning. Did he not fill you in?”
Kenneth was quiet for a second. “No, I guess not. I’ve been…busy the past couple of weeks. It must not have been very urgent.”
“Well that’s good,” Mary said cheerfully. “It means my husband should be back soon. Ah Wesley!” A tall man in a suit hurried down the stairs two at a time, skidding to a stop in front of them. “Just in time.” Mary clapped her hands. “Wesley, dear, can you take the children’s luggage and put them in the guest suites? They’ll be staying with us tonight.”
Wesley bowed. “Of course ma’am.”
“We can take our own bags upstairs,” Cassie said, but Mary waved the comment away.
“Nonsense, don’t be silly.” She put an arm around Cassie again. “Let’s go into the parlor and have some tea. You can tell me all about why you’re here.” Cassie looked helplessly over her shoulder. Kenneth grinned at her as if to say “better you than me” and Finn was busy watching Wesley float their bags before him up the stairs. Cassie gave in and let Mary steer her into the parlor.
One full tea service later, Mary was fully caught up on everything that had happened since Cassie left Gran’s front yard. She shook her head, tapping her fingers on the arm of her chintz armchair. “I just don’t believe it. A Dacruum working on our side. That’s not something you see every day.”
“We’re not sure he’s on our side,” Kenneth said. “Only that he’s trying to piece together Mercutio’s research. We don’t know why, but we do know he has a head start.”
“Well, he hasn’t been here,” Mary assured them. “He couldn’t get close without my knowing. Christian had the security upgraded. Everything’s digital now. There are cameras and locks and dogs and electric fences. And our force field is tapped right into the current. No one, magic or not, can get by.”
“That’s good to hear,” Kenneth said. “Now all we have to do is wait him out. He’s probably taking extra time to shake pursuit. Those Dogs can’t be the only ones who were hunting him. But that won’t put him too far out of his way; he’ll be here soon.”
“If he is coming,” Finn said. “Are you sure the ring is here? Mary, do you know where your husband might have put it?”
“Of course,” Mary said. “It’s in his study. Christian is a big fan of Elysiaa’s. Seers like him, they all have a prophet they hero-worship. You should have seen how upset he was when Duncan snagged that journal of hers from the old Academy. I hope he returns soon enough for you to read him some of it.”
Cassie set her teacup down on the table. “May we see the ring?” she asked. “I don’t want to seem impatient but…”
“No of course not,” Mary said, standing. “It’s why you came here isn’t it? Come, follow me.”
She took them upstairs, to a room overlooking the gardens. Christian’s study was big and airy, with a small sitting area before the fireplace and a huge mahogany desk in front of the window. The two side walls of the room were lined with bookcases. Mary led them over to the right side of the room where, in a small glass case sitting on a stack of books was the third piece of the ring. “Most of these books are old prophecies,” Mary told them. “Christian thought this ring was a great find. He never could figure out what happened to the other pieces or what ring meant. Now we know.”
Carefully, Cassie slid the case open and removed the ring. Its band was thin as well, and she could see how part of the broken setting might fit against the other piece. “Well, this is definitely it,” Cassie said. “Thank you Mary.”
“This is good,” Kenneth said. “As long as we have most of the ring, we have the upper hand. He’ll have to cooperate with us. Mary, I need to speak with your security team to set up a watch.”
“Nonsense,” Mary insisted. “My men will alert us as soon as anyone approaches. You should relax while you can. Who knows where you’ll be off to next.”
“Maybe.” Kenneth ran his fingers through his hair. “But I should at least call Christian—get an update, make sure he knows what’s going on.”
“His call-stone is at his desk,” Mary said, pointing. “Make sure to tell him everything’s under control and I love him.”
“Of course,” Kenneth said.
Mary clapped her hands and rubbed them together. “Well, we’ll leave you to it. Come girls, let’s get some dinner in you. Kenneth, I expect you down the moment you’re finished.”
“Yes ma’am,” Kenneth said.
Dinner was a prolonged affair: four long courses with Mary continuously reloading their plates. Kenneth was subdued most of the meal, but with Mary there Cassie and Finn were unable to question him. Afterwards the girls decided to run drills with staff and sword on the lighted basketball court until Mary forced them to come in and go to bed, while Kenneth insisted on spending the night in the security room, eyes glued to the monitors. In the morning they managed to drag him into the daylight for breakfast and soon the tension eased. The big house was somehow cozy, and it was nice to relax for the first time in days. Everyone settled in for what they thought would be a long wait.
They were sitting down for lunch when the guard came in.
He handed Mary a tablet with the house’s security camera display. She squinted at it. “This is the feed from the front gate? What did he say when you spoke to him?”
“The same thing you told us,” the guard said. “He wants to speak with your husband regarding a matter of great importance. Said he needs his help to prevent a great catastrophe.”
“Do you mind if I get a look at this guy?” Kenneth asked. Mary handed him the tablet. Kenneth barely glanced at the screen before he jumped up, throwing the tablet down so hard on the table it was a wonder it didn’t break. He ran from the room shouting in Athean.
“What just happened?” Cassie reached over and picked up the tablet. It showed a fuzzy picture of a man waiting in front of the gate, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
Finn stood nervously. “I didn’t catch the rest of that but I heard Kenneth say ‘Matthias’. Mary, do you speak Athean?”
“Yes,” Mary said, “but I will not repeat that. By Matthias do you think he meant…?”
“Yup,” Finn nodded. “The Dacruum Prince. This just got a whole lot more complicated. We should go before Kenneth does something reckless.”
Mary and the security guard hurried out of the dining room but Cassie grabbed Finn’s arm before she could follow. “This is the prince?” she said, holding out the tablet. “The actual son of the man who’s trying to destroy the universe?”
“Apparently,” Finn said. “Kenneth has sort of a thing about the guy. He’s the one who gave him that scar. They’re like arch-enemies. So much for our peaceful plan.” Finn rushed off after the others but Cassie hesitated, gripping the tablet tightly.
She zoomed in on the image and though the quality wasn’t the best, it was still clear. Here was her first real look at the black-haired boy. He looked exactly as he had in her vision right down to the hard set of his jaw and the sharpness in his eyes.
Cassie arrived in the foyer just as Kenneth was rushing down the stairs, bow at the ready. Finn was standing between him and the door. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Kenneth halted unwillingly before her. His eyes were a bright orange. “What do you think I’m doing? I’m going to put an arrow through his eye. We can pick the ring off his corpse.”
Cassie leaped forward and grabbed his arm as he tried to swerve around Finn. “You can’t do that.” She blanched at the fierce look Kenneth gave her. “I mean…we need to question him at least. Remember, we have to know what he knows?”
“And you think he’s just going to tell us?”
“What are you going to do about it, torture him? He’s unarmed and he’s trying to negotiate, this is our best shot.” She put a hand on Kenneth’s chest. “Just calm down, ok? You’re not thinking clearly. We have to handle this situation delicately; we only get one chance.”
“There is no delicate with Matthias,” Kenneth said. “You really think the son of the Blood King is going to be nice and reasonable? If he’s turned traitor, it’s only because he wants the Ultimate Power for himself. There’s nothing more that we can get from him but the satisfaction of his death.”
“What a lovely sentiment.” Cassie planted herself more firmly between Kenneth and the door. “But last time we did it your way all we got was a crater and a head start for Matthias. I’m handling this one. And I say we have to at least try to talk to him. Sir,” she turned to the security guard, “is there a way we can hold him so he can’t use his magic?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. “I have some dampening cuffs down in the security room that would do it.”
“Good. Take them out there. Tell him that we have the ring and the information he wants. If he’ll submit to restraint and questioning, he’ll get them.”
The guard raised a worried brow but he said, “Yes, Your Majesty,” and hurried off.
“You’re going to give in to him?” Kenneth’s neck was flushed bright red.
“No,” Cassie said. “But telling him that won’t get him to agree to being tied up.” She eyed Kenneth’s arm, flexing as he gripped his bow tight. Her mother had said something about that scar, about the burden he carried. “I know how much you must hate this,” she said. “But before it was Matthias you were willing to talk to him, weren’t you? You said we needed to know what he knew. Now that we know who we’re dealing with, we have even more of an advantage.”
“You don’t know him like I do,” Kenneth insisted.
Cassie couldn’t help but see those shadow images as they had flashed before her: a boy with a sword fighting by her side. On one end dying, the other killing, but all for her sake. “It doesn’t matter what I know,” she said. “It matters what he does.”
Cassie set up her interrogation in the security room. She set one of the guards’ plain metal chairs in the center of the room with its back to the monitors while Finn moved everything else out. Kenneth, bow in hand went to help the guards bind Matthias and lead him downstairs. Cassie leaned against the wall and took a few deep breaths.
“You ok?” Finn asked her, placing a careful hand on her shoulder.
“No,” Cassie said. “I mean, yes. I’ll be fine. I’m just…nervous.”
Finn stepped in front of her, forcing Cassie to meet her critical gaze. “I expect the freaking out from Kenneth,” she said. “But what’s going on with you?”
“I…” Cassie glanced at the empty doorway, then back at Finn. “My vision. The one from the book. I know I said I didn’t want to talk about it, and it doesn’t matter anyway because it’s just a possible future. But…this guy. He was in my vision. The whole time he was with us. And I don’t know what that means. It was all so fuzzy—was he fighting for us or against us, how much does he really affect my fate…all I know is that it was him. His presence starts it all. And I—”
She was cut off as the guards and Kenneth came in, pushing Matthias ahead of them. Cassie couldn’t take her eyes off the prisoner, but he only barely glanced at her and Finn as he sat down in the chair and one of the guards tied him to it. “Cassie,” Finn started to say, but she cut Finn off with a shake of her head.
“Kenneth, step back,” Cassie ordered.
Even at this close range, Kenneth kept his bow notched and ready. Reluctantly he took a few steps back. Finn posted herself beside him, but from the worried look in her eyes Cassie wasn’t sure that she would stop him if he tried a shot. She was watching Cassie closely, her brow furrowed in concern. Cassie cleared her throat to calm her nerves and turned to the guards.
“Did you find anything on him?” She asked.
“Other than standard weapons, his pack is clean,” the first guard reported. “On his person we only found a couple of rings.” He stepped forward and dropped them into her hand.
Cassie looked down at the third fragment of Mercutio’s ring. The gold was almost electric in her hands. Finally all the pieces had come together. The other ring was obviously a signet: two different crests were carved into the setting and a sigil Cassie couldn’t read was scratched onto the surface of the black sapphire. She slid both rings into her pocket.
“Thank you, both of you,” Cassie said to the guards. “If you could just stand guard outside for us. I’ll call if I need anything.”
The first guard eyed Kenneth, as high-strung as his weapon. “Are you sure, Majesty?”
“We’ll be fine.” She tapped her wand, tucked into her belt. “Just stay nearby.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” They both bowed and left the room.
Once the door was shut behind them, Cassie stepped forward. Looking down at Matthias she knew that she had every right to hate him, this leader of her enemies. But all she could see was the black-haired boy and the questions he’d posed since her very first brush with magic. “I guess there’s no point beating around the bush,” she said. Her voice was surprisingly steady. “We know who you are, we know what you want. The only reason you’re still alive is because we don’t know why.”
“I told you why I’m here,” he said.
“I know, your ‘great catastrophe’,” Cassie said. “But that doesn’t explain why you’re here. If this was above-board you’d have sent someone else to do the grunt work. But we’ve already heard them call you a traitor. So what makes someone like you turn against his own father to go sniffing around enemy territory for a few scraps of gold?”
“Isn’t it enough to say that it could save the universe? What’s a broken old ring worth to you against that?”
“You mean Mercutio’s ring?” Cassie crossed her arms. “Don’t think I don’t know what that’s worth.”
“If you know about the ring,” Matt said, “then you know what happens when you put it together. There’s only one thing I could do with that information. I want to perform the Rite; I want to change the state of the universe.”
“You think you can do it all by yourself?”
“What makes you think that I’m by myself?”
Cassie prided herself on not reacting. She kept her stern face on as she inwardly cursed herself for not thinking of that. There could be any number of others out there, ready to swoop in to his rescue. Boldly, she said, “We ran into a few of your friends, back in Vertiis. You can thank us for taking care of them. But I doubt that such a public traitor would have many allies back home. Unless of course there’s a full-scale rebellion that my sources have just missed.”
“I have sources too, Your Majesty,” Matt said. “Child queen, raised on Earth…resealing the universe would stabilize even a shaky reign like that. Especially when everyone still thinks it’s impossible. We could work together.”
Cassie could hear Kenneth moving into position, but she kept her eyes locked on Matt. “Killing you would be enough if I felt the need to prove anything.” She found herself wishing she’d worn the crown. She’d promised Kenneth that she would get information out of the prince, but bravado could only get her so far. “However you found out about the ring, you know nothing about Mercutio and his legacy. I am his true heir. I don’t need to work with you, but you damn sure need me if you want any part of this. So tell me why you’re here.”
Matt closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Was he formulating a lie, or just reluctant to cooperate with Craftlings? “What I said about a catastrophe was true, I swear,” he said. “You may not care, but so far Dacruum have been dying. And it’ll only get worse. I believe that if the universe were sealed again, the threat would be eliminated.”
Cassie glanced back at Kenneth and Finn. Kenneth had an arrow aimed straight at Matt’s heart, his eyes blazing. Finn put a hand on his arm, forcing him to lower it. She gave Cassie a questioning look. “Maybe it would,” Cassie said to Matt, “But I don’t think they’d name you a traitor for that. Try again.”
“I’m telling the truth,” Matt insisted. “Do you think my father, the Blood King, entertains all the possible solutions to problems like this? The only thing he understands is bloodshed. I love my father, but I refused to go along with him. And when I left for the Craftling realm, you must see how that looked. That’s why they’re hunting me. I won’t be a traitor when I save our people.”
“Funny how that works.” Kenneth couldn’t be silent anymore. He stepped forward, ignoring Finn’s attempts to hold him back. “And when you return a hero, they’ll be begging to crown you king. We’re not going to be a part of your takeover attempt.”
“I’m not asking you to be,” Matt shot back. “There is no takeover attempt. Damn it, L’Athea you know I’m not lying. If there were a way to change my father’s mind, I’d have done it. This is my only chance.” He turned to Cassie. “Just give me the ring. As soon as I get the information, you can have it back.”
“I told you, the ring won’t do you any good,” Cassie said. “Only the heir of Mercutio can access what’s inside.”
“And what makes you so sure you’re the heir of Mercutio?” Matt said. “You may be his blood, but the true heir could be anyone.”
“You aren’t the only one with prophecies,” Finn said. “Cassie is the heir. It is written.”
Cassie saw Matt catch his breath, just a bit. Suddenly she saw again his eyes in her vision as he died, whispering something to her, cradled in her arms. Those eyes held more hope than the ones she saw before her now. He composed himself well. “If that’s true…” he said. “Will you do it? Will you perform the Rite?”
Cassie paused. Too long, really. “Kenneth,” she said without turning around. “You can see with your power, right? Has he been telling the truth?”
Kenneth tried unsuccessfully to brush Finn off his arm. Through his teeth he said, “Technically, yes. But you don’t have to lie to play false. Just let him be satisfied that you will perform the Rite and leave him to his fate. You said it yourself, you don’t need him to do this.”
“Fate,” Cassie repeated softly.
“So you are going to do it?” Matt asked. “You’ll seal the universe?”
“Cassie,” Finn interrupted. “Can I talk to you in the hallway for a second?”
“It’s imperative.” Finn raised her eyebrows, hinting with her eyes.
“Ok.” Cassie gave one last glance at Matt before leaving the room. Finn dragged Kenneth with her into the hallway. “Can you go in and guard him for a minute?” Cassie asked the guards. “We need to conference apparently.” With a nod and another “yes, Majesty” they left them alone in the hallway. Kenneth pulled his arm free and Finn let him. “What’s the problem, Finn?” Cassie asked.
“The Ultimate Power,” Finn said bluntly. “His ‘catastrophe’. The king is the one summoning it, isn’t he? I’ll bet it takes a lot of blood magic to do it too. That’s why the Dacruum people are dying. Matthias must have tried to convince his father to stop and failed.”
“Ok,” Cassie said,” what about it?”
“He didn’t mention it,” Kenneth said impatiently. “If he’s holding back information about this, who knows what else he isn’t telling us.”
“Well that’s why I’m trying to interrogate him,” Cassie protested. “It’s not my fault I’m not very good at it. They don’t exactly teach it in Sunday school.”
“That’s why I pulled you out here,” Finn said. “We need to figure out a new plan. So far all he’s admitted is what we already know. If he’s telling the truth about saving his people, then he must know the connection between the Sealing and the Ultimate Power.”
“He thinks that sealing the universe will stop it,” Kenneth said. “He’s not lying but…”
“But he could be mistaken,” Finn finished. “We’ll have to judge that for ourselves. The prophecy says that stopping the Ultimate Power is part of the Rite. I don’t know what that means, but maybe some information he has about the summoning could give us a clue.”
“We just have to figure out how to ask him without telling him what we know,” Cassie said. “Any suggestions?”
“Torture,” Kenneth muttered.
“Of course not,” Finn said. “I was thinking I might take a crack at it. No offense Cass but you’re…partial on this one.”
“I’m not,” Cassie insisted. “I swear I’m not.”
“What are you two talking about?” Kenneth looked from one girl to the other.
To her credit, Finn tried to give as little detail as possible. “Her vision. The big one from the Book. Cassie saw Matthias in it.”
“You what?” Kenneth rounded on Cassie.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “Visions don’t have to come true.”
“Maybe not,” Finn said, “but I can see it in your eyes. Whatever it is you saw him do for us, you’re ready to trust him before he’s earned it. So far, yes, he sounds like he could be on our side, but if we give in too early we might change things for the worse.”
“You two are talking like we’re meant to work with him,” Kenneth said. “You can’t be serious. He is the enemy. He will always be the enemy. Whatever he was doing in your vision, he can’t have been with us.”
“I don’t know,” Cassie said. “It’s impossible to tell. You’re probably right, but…” She could still hear the words in her own voice, a voice choked with tears. “I love you.”
“I am right,” Kenneth said firmly. “I have watched that man kill in cold blood too many times.” He held up his arm, the scar white against his skin. “He almost killed me. Matthias Ardal is no friend to us.”
“Just let me talk to him,” Finn said. “I think I can figure this out.”
As they all filed back into the security room, Matt lifted his head and smiled. “Had a good talk did you? Is it time to let me go yet?”
“Not yet,” Finn said. “Now, it’s my turn.”
Matt was eying Kenneth where he lingered by the door. Cassie wasn’t making as much of an effort to restrain him as Finn had. He already had an arrow back on the string. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Matt said to Finn as casually as he could.
“It’s not important who I am,” Finn said. “We need to talk about who you are.”
“I thought we’d covered that.”
“Not to my satisfaction.” Finn planted her feet just close enough to hover uncomfortably over Matt. “You’re the prince, we know that. A prince who’s abandoning not just his king, but his father. One doesn’t undertake something like that lightly. This catastrophe of yours—you still haven’t said what it is.”
“Does it matter? Death is death in my opinion.”
“Depending on how you die, it can be a lot more,” Finn said. “You say your father’s plan to ‘avert’ this catastrophe involves bloodshed. How exactly does that work?”
“Blood magic,” Matt said. “It’s powerful yes, but the cost is too high. At least, to me it is. My father would sacrifice anything for the power to protect the realm.”
“Or maybe just for power,” Finn said.
“Is that what this is about?” Matt asked. “You’re accusing me of doing all of this as some part of Father’s mad quest for power? You do understand what the Ultimate Power will do to the universe?”
Finn smiled. “‘The Ultimate Power shall devour him, and with him, all creation shall fall’,” she quoted. “Does that sound about right?”
“I knew you knew,” Matt said. “Why else interrogate me like this? But it doesn’t matter. I don’t know anything more about it than you do. If you want to know how to summon the Ultimate Power, you’ll have to ask my father.”
“He’s lying,” Kenneth said. He held his bow down, but it was still at the ready.
“Of course he is,” Finn said. “You told us that sealing creation would stop ‘the catastrophe.’ You can’t know that without knowing something about how to summon the thing.”
Matt sighed. He hung his head for a second, then looked up, resolved. “If I tell you, you have to promise.” He caught Cassie’s eyes. “Promise that you’ll perform the Rite.”
“We don’t have to promise you anything,” Kenneth said.
“I came here willingly,” Matt reminded them. “I let them cuff me and tie me up because there are more important things at stake here than our bloody rivalry.”
“I’ll only promise to do what is right,” Cassie said, a little too loudly. “If I am fully satisfied that no harm will come to my people, then I will perform the Rite. Is that enough for you?”
He watched her carefully for a moment before he said, “I suppose it’ll have to be.”
“So tell us,” Finn said. “What is the connection between Creation and the Ultimate Power?”
“Julian,” Matt said.
“What?” Cassie stepped forward unconsciously.
“When Mercutio performed the Rite, he required a witness. So he tricked my ancestor Julian into following him and being a part of it.”
“That can’t be true,” Kenneth said uncertainly. “We would know if it were.”
“Julian was the only one who ever knew,” Matt said. “The Dacruum public has never heard it either. But Julian passed the story down through the royal line. My grandfather told me on his deathbed. Mercutio led Julian to Earth, a forest clearing with a giant silver tree. Julian arrived just as the Rite started; he didn’t know what Mercutio had done until it was too late. When it was over, he regained consciousness to find the clearing empty. All there was was a jeweled pendant lying on the ground. Julian examined the thing every way he could, but he couldn’t make any sense of it. So he brought it to Elysiaa.”
“There’s no mention of that in her journal,” Finn said. “Why would the Craftling queen meet with the man who helped keep her captive?”
“I don’t know,” Matt said. “Julian and Mercutio were enemies, but they had a certain…professional courtesy.” He gave Kenneth a pointed look. “Elysiaa no doubt was more interested in information on her husband’s death than old enmity. Anyway, she couldn’t make sense of the gem either. But she did know something about the Rite. She showed Julian a ring, a ring in which Mercutio had stored all of his research. Julian never repeated what was inside it, but he said that he couldn’t undo what had been done. It was meant to wait…for the one who could.
“It was Julian who advised Elysiaa to split the ring into pieces and hide them, to protect Mercutio’s secret. And she…she gave him a prophecy in return. Thought it would help him and his family. The prophecy said that one day an Emperor would seek what lay beyond his grasp, and lead the worlds to ruin. But his son…through betrayal…would redeem him.
“The Ultimate Power depends on the fragility of borders in the state of origin. It draws on the power of the universe itself, breaking it apart to siphon its magic. That’s all I could find out about it. But I do know that when sealed the universe is strong and un-malleable. In Creation, summoning the Ultimate Power is impossible. I wasn’t sure if I could perform the Rite, or find the one who could, but I had to try.”
A long pause followed Matt’s words. Finally, Finn turned to Kenneth. “Is he telling the truth?”
“As far as I can tell,” Kenneth admitted. “But there are ways to trick truth magic that I wouldn’t put past him.”
“It’s true,” Cassie said. A clearing in the woods with a giant silver tree. “It lines up with my vision. Tell me,” she said to Matt, “if your grandfather told you Julian’s story, does that mean your father doesn’t know it?”
Matt hesitated, but he answered. “My father knows nothing. Grandfather thought he was too volatile to understand the message. The Blood King solves all his problems through killing. Prophecies aren’t his style.”
“They aren’t yours either, if memory serves,” Kenneth said.
“A lot has changed in the past few years, L’Athea,” Matt said somberly. “I’m not that person anymore.”
Kenneth said a word in Athean that seemed to be a pretty nasty swear word.
“Right, and you’re still the exact same person?” Matt scoffed. “It isn’t war that shapes a man, it’s what he chooses to become afterwards. You chose loyalty to your queen. I am loyal to my people. Is that so different? Whether or not I become Emperor, I must protect them. You have to believe that.”
“And if I do?” Kenneth said. “Would that change anything?”
“Maybe not,” Matt admitted. “But I’m not here to ask forgiveness.”
Cassie was thinking about what Matt had said about the fragile borders and universal powers. It reminded her of her conversation with Anyu, on that warm summer afternoon in a meadow that was so far away now. He had spoken of an abomination, creatures that came from another dimension. Whatever wall kept them at bay, it had been set up during the state of Creation. During Origin, it would be that much easier to tear the barrier apart. Perhaps the universe itself was resilient enough to withstand a little manipulation, but if those creatures were let loose...was that that the true danger of the Ultimate Power? A possible future, a possible end.
“Kenneth, Finn,” Cassie said with sudden authority. “Give me a second alone with him.”
Finn said “What?” at the same time that Kenneth said “No.”
“Just for a minute,” Cassie said. “We’ve gotten as far as we can right now. Rather than yell at each other, we can’t move forward until we make a decision about what to do next. About him. And I’m queen, right? So give me a second to talk to him alone. One more thing and I’ll know for sure.”
Finn stepped up to Cassie and put a hand on her shoulder. “What are you doing?” she whispered.
“I’m not sure yet,” Cassie said. She met her friend’s eyes. “But I have to do it.”
Finn must have seen something in Cassie’s eyes—maybe determination, maybe desperation—because she nodded solemnly. “Ok.” She took Kenneth by the arm and somehow dragged him into the hallway despite his protests. Cassie waited for a beat after the door clicked shut before turning back to Matt.
“What are you going to do to me?” he asked, leaning back in his chair warily.
Cassie sighed and walked over to him. “Nothing,” she said. Kneeling, she started to untie the ropes that bound him. He watched her with quiet disbelief. “As a ruler, I understand where you’re coming from,” Cassie said as she worked. “Protecting the people, questioning yourself, questioning your parents.” She let the ropes fall to the floor and turned to the handcuffs. They had no lock, so she assumed they were magically set. With a spark they opened. Matt rolled his arms forward and rubbed his wrists. Cassie met his eyes, “To be honest, I admire your conviction. Knowing what you believe is right and what you’ll risk for it is the only way to keep your head above water. But just because you and I want the same things, doesn’t mean we have the same convictions.” She stood and walked a few steps away. “And until I can figure out exactly how different they are, I can’t let you stay with us. But I can’t let you go either.”
“Ok…” Matt stood cautiously, “…so then what happens now?”
Cassie fished the partial ring out of her pocket and turned around to face Matt. “You could kill me now,” she said. “It’s just the two of us.” She held up the ring. “The other pieces are upstairs. You could use my blood to access the ring, perform the Rite yourself.”
“You’re testing me,” Matt said blankly.
“No, I’m really not,” Cassie said. She slid the ring onto her finger. “It’s like the scorpion and the toad, except I don’t know which one I am.”
“Never mind. But you see my dilemma here? Even if I believe everything you’ve said, even if your help does become necessary, how can I trust you?”
Matt started to say something, but he stopped himself. With a sigh he said, “I was about to say ‘I could ask the same of you’ but I don’t think I can.” He held up a free hand. “If I were in your place, I’d never have untied me. I might have just killed you.”
“Are you saying that’s what I should do?”
“I’m saying that conviction is one thing, courage is another. You’re nothing like I thought you’d be. No Craftling I’ve ever met has shown even a little compassion.”
“You must not have met very many of them,” Cassie said. She took a breath before she spoke again. “Let me tell you what I want. I want to perform the Rite. I want to undo the mistakes that my family has made and the burden they’ve put on my people. And I will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Whatever it takes. Finn and Kenneth,” she pointed to the door, “they’re not here just because I need their help. They’re here because they’re the people I trust most in the world. I have to be able to rely on the people around me, to put my life in their hands. Anyone I can’t trust will be removed no matter how important they might be. I can always find another way. So before you leave, or die, or shake my hand, I have to know: what is it that you want?”
Matt stood looking at her for a long time. His eyes were bright, but clouded. Cassie couldn’t read anything of what lay behind them. She waited, held in his gaze, and finally he answered. “I want a world where people like my father can’t be the emperor. I want to see innocent men live and the guilty punished. I want to believe that a person can be more than what’s expected of them. That even the Craftlings can be good. I want to take on this task with you. I want your trust. Maybe just to see if I’m capable of earning it at all, but I want it. Is that enough?”
Cassie touched a hand to her necklace. It was useless now, just another trinket. But it felt warm to the touch, and something about the familiar gesture strengthened her resolve. “I’m never sure what’s enough,” Cassie said. “But I guess that’ll do for now.”