Kenneth didn’t say a word when Cassie emerged from the security room with Matt. He turned away and went upstairs. Finn said, “So, we’re trusting him.”
“To an extent,” Cassie said. “For now.”
“I’ve never felt so welcome,” Matt muttered.
Cassie gave him a sideways glance, but didn’t comment. “Let me talk to Kenneth,” Cassie told Finn. “I owe him an explanation. Here,” she pulled the ring piece off her finger and handed it to Finn, “get the other pieces and I’ll meet you in the den.”
“Ok,” Finn said. “Good luck.” She started up the stairs and Matt followed. The guards excused themselves and awkwardly returned to their posts. Cassie stood in the hallway for a moment, composing herself. She wasn’t sure she could explain her decision to herself, let alone Kenneth, but it had to be done.
Cassie found him on the front steps, looking out at the sweeping drive. At this time of year the trees were full of tiny blossoms and the flowers were still half-closed in sleep. Cassie sat down on the step next to Kenneth. “I’m sorry,” was all she could think to say.
They sat in silence for a while until Kenneth said, “Do you have a plan or something?”
“I don’t know,” Cassie said. “Maybe. I don’t think it’d be wise to let him go. He’s not the kind to sit back and let us take care of things.”
“So you know what kind of person he is now,” Kenneth said. His voice was flat. He gripped his bow in front of him, twisting the wood in his hands.
“I’m not saying that,” Cassie said. “I just…for now we’re safer watching him. And you may not like it, but if my vision turns out to be worth anything, I think we’ll end up needing him. As a witness, maybe a sacrifice, whatever, but after talking to him, I have this gut feeling that he’s supposed to be here.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Kenneth snorted. “But like you said, you’re the queen. You can do whatever you want.”
“Don’t be like that,” Cassie said. “I want you to be ok with this.”
“I’ll never be ok with this.” Kenneth stood. “But what do I know?” He looked down at her. “I’ll do my best to protect you. I gave you my word on that. But if I can’t control him…”
“I will,” Cassie said, standing as well. “I’ll take responsibility.”
Kenneth met her gaze for a long moment. Finally he turned away and sighed. “Then I guess we better get back in there.” As he turned and walked into the house Cassie heard him mutter, “if he’s done anything to Finn I swear to all three Jhirr I will rip his throat out with my bare hands.”
They all sat down in front of the fireplace in Christian’s study to work on the ring. Kenneth and Matt sat opposite each other, glaring, each on the edge of his chair and looking as if they were about to leap at each other at any moment. Finn overturned the obsidian box onto the coffee table. Cassie’s heartbeat sped up; Mercutio’s ring would soon be whole again and they would have their answers.
Carefully she picked up the pieces. The ring segments fit together like a puzzle. She placed the stone back in its setting and felt it instantly take hold. The three bands melted into one and the setting molded itself around the stone. Cassie turned it in her fingers. Protection sigils and binding wards were engraved along the base of the setting. There was no activation inscription, but somehow Cassie knew what she had to do. She slid the ring onto her finger and it grew warm against her skin, recognizing her. She brought the ring closer to her face and she could see it superimposed over the engravings like a mirage: the words to unlock Mercutio’s secret. “Huh,” she said.
“What is it?” Kenneth asked. “Is everything ok?”
“Yeah,” Cassie said. “The inscription’s here. It’s just…I don’t think Mercutio knew about me after all. It’s for Elysiaa.” Cassie cleared her throat and read, “Blood of my blood, heart of my heart, what was once a part of you lives within me, a guiding strength, a true home.”
The ring began to glow, softly at first and then with greater intensity. They all covered their eyes as it flashed and when they opened them again Cassie’s hand was surrounded by a sphere of light similar to one of Kenneth’s shields. But this light was covered with words like a projection. Most of it was written in Renalian, but there were some glyphs and drawings accompanied by labels and quotes in different languages. Hesitantly, Cassie touched the light and it rotated slightly, like a globe on a stand. The more she rotated it, the more convoluted it all seemed.
“He didn’t have much of an organizational system,” Cassie said. “These passages are all disjointed.”
“It was probably a journal,” Matt said. “Each passage entered at different times, stored more for space usage than continuity. There should be a pattern though.”
Finn was squinting at the light. “It looks like maybe it goes counterclockwise. This way?” She pointed. “It’ll take a while for us to get through all of this.”
“Maybe we don’t have to,” Cassie said. She had been turning the globe slowly, skimming through Mercutio’s ramblings. A large chunk of writing stood out. “Look at this, I think it’s the beginning. ‘I am to be a father. It is certain. I had almost thought to give up my quest, but now it is more important than ever that I succeed. Even if I do not return. If so, I must leave behind something for my child. Elysiaa, when he is ready, show him this and make it known to him what it is that I have done for you and for our people.’”
“Elysiaa died in childbirth with their only daughter, Aurora” Kenneth said. “He must have thought she would be his heir. But she publicly renounced her father, gave up the family name, and sacrificed herself to protect the realm. If only she’d seen this.”
“He does address her as his son the whole time though,” Finn pointed out, leaning over to look more closely at the floating text. “She might not have been that impressed. What worries me is this ‘terrible fate’ he keeps mentioning. He must have assumed Elysiaa would explain it because he doesn’t say what it is.”
“Terrible fate?” Matt repeated. “Whose fate?”
“I don’t know,” Finn said. “Maybe for Aurora. Maybe for everyone. Here,” she pointed, “‘only Origin can hold back the terrible fate that bears down upon us’.”
Cassie thought back to the warning the Watchers had given her. In order to fulfill her destiny, she must take every care not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Could those mistakes be Mercutio’s? The Book had granted Cassie a vision to say that she would have to choose between one abomination and another. Had Mercutio faced the same choice, all those years ago? Origin or Creation? Monsters or Demons?”
“Earth is mentioned here a lot,” Cassie said, scanning through the long paragraph. “He keeps referencing the sealing and some kind of covenant. Earth was the last planet in the Progression of Creation, right?”
“Yes,” Kenneth said slowly. “When they made their choice, the universe was sealed. He must have studied that carefully to find how to undo it.”
“But what is the Covenant?” Cassie pressed. “Mercutio says it must be kept at all costs. And here, ‘it is because of the Covenant of Earth that this action is possible’.”
“That explains a lot actually,” Matt said. “Mercutio’s life-force alone would never have been enough to change the state of the universe. But if he utilized the Covenant, he’d have all the power he needed. Power that wasn’t his.”
“What does that mean?” Finn asked.
“It means that the Dacruum are still bitter about it,” Kenneth said, making Matt’s scowl deepen. “The Covenant was a pact made at the Sealing, between Earth and the Craftlings. It’s been highly disputed among all the races, even today. Some people go as far as saying that it upset the balance of the universe.”
“It was a way of cheating the balance, you have to admit that,” Matt said a bit sullenly. To the girls he explained, “Back during the progression, our people and yours started the war by fighting over the undecided planets, trying to bring them to one side or the other. Of course now we see that it’s best the shadow planets remain impartial, but at the time they didn’t know that. It was only a matter of power.”
“Maybe to your ancestors,” Kenneth said. “The Craftlings inhabited Earth in preparation for the time when the choice would be presented, to protect it. They fought against the Dacruum influence, yes, but in the end they let the Malcoh decide. What happened was the Earthers were afraid that any declaration, even a neutral one, would put them back in the middle of a war they didn’t want to fight.”
“So they gave up,” Finn realized, “And chose to forget. That stupid dwarf was right.”
“Gaenish told you about it?” Kenneth said.
“He yelled something to that effect at me. I didn’t know what it meant.”
“I told you some people were very against it,” Kenneth said. “The dwarves especially had a rough time. It’s against their nature to give up or forgive. When it came time for the Sealing, legend says that a member of each of the Craftling kindreds was present. The dwarves don’t speak about their ancestor who participated.”
“But how did they make the people of Earth forget what happened?” Cassie asked. “How do you wipe the memory of a billion people?”
“Well this was two, three thousand years ago,” Kenneth said, “so there were less people to worry about. And the timing is what made it possible. When the representatives of Earth swore that they would become a shadow planet, they also relinquished their claim to the planet’s power.”
“The planet’s power?” Cassie repeated.
“All matter contains energy,” Matt said. “And great amounts of energy make magic. Every planet has a core reserve of power that ties the people to the land and gives them strength.”
“The magical current we’re sitting on,” Cassie said.
“Exactly,” Matt said. “And when you cut off your connection to the planet like that…”
“You lose your ability to perform magic,” Finn finished. “Everyone at once?”
“Pretty much,” Kenneth said. “A few families kept their powers, but they were drastically weakened without the planet to tap into. The rest shut magic out of their lives entirely, chose to forget that it had ever existed. The power of the Sealing was so strong that it helped them to erase the memories. Earth wanted to be free of the war and they thought that was the only way to do it. But, the planet can’t just be left to itself. All that power unchecked would self-destruct. So the Craftlings took on the responsibility.”
“Cheating,” Matt said. “They siphoned the power of Earth to the Craftling realm to strengthen their people. It doesn’t technically throw off the balance, but it’s not exactly fair.”
“Well if the Dacruum hadn’t killed so many people trying to turn Earth, it might have turned out differently,” Kenneth shot back. “But anyway, that’s what the Covenant is. The deal that we will take Earth’s magic in return for protecting them. Still, this could be good news for us. If Mercutio did tap into that power source, he didn’t do it alone. At the very least the Guardians of the Covenant would have to allow it.”
“There are Guardians of the Covenant?” Finn said.
“The siphon is an actual, physical thing,” Kenneth said. “It’s like a conduit that runs from Earth to our Realm. It was made during the sealing, sort of a dimensional rift. Someone has to keep track of it.”
“Mercutio mentions them,” Cassie said, still reading the globe around her hand. “The Guardians of the Covenant. He calls them the last barrier. And then…” she quickly scanned the next paragraph. “Listen to this.” Cassie took a breath and read steadily, “‘Instead of filling my heart with memories of you, my son, I will take in the echoes of times long past. The Covenant itself can never be broken, but that which made it made also Creation. I will take the magics that were given once before and return to the place of reckoning to give again into the void that it might turn upon itself. The pact will leave behind a physical form, though I do not know what it will be. Proof to god himself that the past is rewritten. Whatever it is, you must find it, my son, and keep it hidden lest my work be undone and ruin come to us all.’”
They were all quiet when she finished, looking from one to the other. Kenneth even forgot to act hateful toward Matt. This was it, the answer they had been searching for. But the satisfaction was tainted.
“He recreated the Covenant,” Kenneth said. “That much power in one place, it would recreate the conditions of the Sealing—shake the foundations of our dimension, and change the state of the universe. It’s smart but…”
“But it was suicide,” Matt finished. “He said that he accepted the powers into his own heart. That means that magic from every Craftling kindred and the full power of Earth was channeled through his body. No wonder there was nothing left.”
“Except the proof of the pact,” Finn reminded him. “That gemstone you mentioned, do you know where it is?”
Matt nodded. “I have it. Well, not on me. It’s safe, and I can get to it as soon as we need it.”
“We’ll need it as soon as possible,” Kenneth said. “According to your story Mercutio and Julian were alone. That means that there weren’t representatives of the kindreds there to lend their power. Mercutio probably made a connection with each of them and used the gem to activate it. With his life force as an anchor, the pendant would be the real key to the Rite.”
“I thought it was the physical form the Rite’s power took afterwards,” Cassie said.
“No, it wouldn’t be,” Finn said. She turned the globe a bit, pointing to the passage above what Cassie had read. “That last barrier? He says the guardians must agree to his plan and give him proof of a new pact to resurrect the Covenant under the state of Origin. That must have been the pendant. It’s not a byproduct of the reaction, it’s the catalyst. That’s why Mercutio knew it would be there after he finished. Even if he wouldn’t be.”
“So he gives up his life to activate the magic and direct it into the gem,” Cassie said. “That’s how he did it. That’s how it has to be done.”
“Cassie…” Kenneth started.
“No, it’s ok,” she said. “I wouldn’t live up to my family legacy if it didn’t come down to my life at some point.”
“Maybe it doesn’t have to,” Matt said.
“Well I’m not completely sure,” he looked around at all of them defensively. “But Mercutio only died because he let the powers consume him like tinder to fuel the Rite. All you’d need is to find another anchor, channel the power through something besides yourself. It could still work.”
“But what would we channel it through?” Cassie said. “What could provide the same strength as a human soul?”
“Well, if you have the gem and a set amount of power from each kindred, you might be able to channel it through the Earth itself. That’s how it was done the first time.”
“How would you carry that power and divert it into the Earth in the first place?” Kenneth said. “There’s no inanimate object that could handle all of that, and any smaller objects stored with power would react against the others. And without a physical conduit—“
Matt cut him off. “We can manipulate the raw magic. Store it in a marking glyph and move it all at once. I can do it.” He pointed at Cassie. “You perform the rite and I direct it into the Earth.” He pushed up his sleeve. There were the tattoos that Cassie had seen in her vision. Matt tapped one and it glowed. “See? This magic is not connected to me or my life force, but it’s stored perfectly safe under my skin.”
“Why would you have something like that?” Finn asked.
“It’s a common battle tactic, to release a burst of energy against a target without sapping your own strength.” Almost guiltily he glanced sideways at Kenneth.
Kenneth looked instead at Cassie. “It’s not as simple as he makes it sound,” he warned. “There’s a reason our people don’t use that power.”
“Because you don’t have the ability,” Matt said.
“Well even if we did, we wouldn’t use it,” Kenneth said. “It’s dangerous and unpredictable. Storing fireworks up your sleeve is a whole lot different than manipulating seven of the strongest powers in the universe. No one can undertake a working like that. There has to be another vessel we can use.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Matt said. “But I don’t think you’re going to find any that don’t involve sacrificing your queen.”
Cassie was thinking about the pendant. Could it be the same one from her vision? She could still feel it solid in her hand, beautiful in a way she couldn’t describe. Suddenly, the path before her was becoming very clear. “How sure are you that you could do it?” Cassie asked Matt. “Kenneth’s right, it would involve much more magic than one person could handle. What makes you think you can control that?”
“Honestly,” Matt said, “I’m not sure that I can. But it’s the best chance we have, isn’t it? We have to perform the Rite somehow, and I’m not going to ask you to sacrifice yourself.”
“Since when do you care about the fate of the Craftling Queen?” Kenneth asked.
“Theoretically I don’t,” Matt said. To Cassie, “No offense. But as the son of the Blood King, I can tell you that martyrdom doesn’t earn you a whole lot at the end of the day. And total disintegration is one of those things you don’t wish on your worst enemy.”
“If you’re really asking to do this,” Finn said, resigned, “then we don’t get to be enemies anymore.” She put up a hand to stop Kenneth’s objection. “Once you align yourself with us, even temporarily, your people will turn against you. Your father will try to stop us and when it comes to a fight you’ll be on our side whether you, or we, want you to be. Is that something you’re prepared for?”
Matt didn’t say anything at first. He looked to Cassie, and she knew he was thinking about their conversation. But then he turned to Finn and smiled. “You’re the Second aren’t you? Finnia Morgan?”
“I’d heard you were…something else. You actually remind me of someone I know. Look, when I set out to do this I was prepared to do whatever it took. If this is what it takes, I can be as strong an ally as you need me to be. When it’s all over I’ll return to my people and let them decide if I’m truly a traitor.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want to be a martyr.” Finn smiled crookedly.
“I said it doesn’t end well,” Matt said. “Someone’s still got to do it.”
Kenneth snorted. “As lovely as that sentiment is, we still don’t know that the plan will work. If we try it and the whole thing blows up in our faces, then we could be the ones responsible for the end of the universe.”
“Mercutio’s theory here is sound,” Cassie said. “And we know it works. If Matt can provide an anchor other than my life force, we barely have to change anything. And don’t forget about the pendant. It was charged once with his power, maybe it could serve as a retroactive connection.”
Finn shook her head. “The pendant may be necessary, but it’s not going to do us any extra favors. More than sustaining the Rite, it was what kept the covenant from breaking while the whole universe turned around it. If we perform the Rite again, that’s all it will do. Unless the Guardians give us something else to use.”
“Huh,” Cassie said. “That poses an interesting question.”
“Well think about it: Mercutio gathered up all the power, got everything ready, and then went to the guardians to ask their permission. What if the pendant doesn’t work more than once? Or, what if there’s an easier way than what Mercutio did? They would know.”
“You’re saying we should ask them,” Kenneth said. “The Guardians of the Covenant.”
“Is that such a bad idea?” Cassie said.
“Maybe not,” Kenneth said. “They’re Craftlings the same as us, it stands to reason that they’d care just as much about the fate of our people. Although they haven’t been seen in a long time.”
“They haven’t? Cassie said, surprised. “If they’re guardians, wouldn’t they have to report in on what they’re guarding?”
“Not necessarily,” Kenneth said. “As a whole they’re…well reclusive is the kindest word. They’d only come to us if something happened, and the conduit’s always been stable. Believe me, we’d know if it weren’t.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” Finn said. “With something this big, it’s better to take our time and make sure we’ve got it right before we do anything.” She turned to Matt. “We do have time for that, right? Your father isn’t about to break the universe tomorrow, is he?”
“I haven’t seen my father in weeks,” Matt reminded them. “But the last time I did, it was slow going. He doesn’t know exactly how to summon the Ultimate Power, so I think it’ll be a while before we need to be more worried. But still, with every horrible experiment he gets one step closer. Just a few days ago I heard that he sacrificed a thousand people at once. Whatever purpose that served, it can’t have been good.”
“I guess that’s where the Emperor gets his nickname,” Cassie said softly. She remembered the man lying under Matt’s sword in her vision. He’d looked so much like the prince it was hard not to assume it was the Emperor. But he hadn’t seemed to be a bloody tyrant, just a scared old man. “If we want to avoid bloodshed,” Cassie said to the others, “we need to pick caution over speed while we can. We have an advantage over Mercutio here. We don’t have to make the same mistakes.” The Watchers had been clear after all: she couldn’t afford to make mistakes.