“Are you sure you ought to be leaving so soon?” Mary asked. She and Cassie stood on the broad wayhouse porch while the others lingered at the bottom of the steps. Mary eyed Matt anxiously. “Maybe you should wait for Christian to get home. I’m sure he can help you”
“I appreciate the sentiment, Mary,” Cassie said, “but trust me, we’ll be ok. For better or worse, he’s on our side now.” She gave Mary a hug. “You take care. We’ll come visit again when all this is over.”
Mary shook her head. “You worry about yourself. I’ll pray for you every day, Your Majesty.”
“Thanks,” Cassie said uncertainly. Where they were going, she wasn’t sure prayer would make much of a difference. But she smiled and took her leave of Mary, joining the others at the bottom of the stairs. They made their way down the drive, back to the transport stone that had brought them here. Kenneth made a point of walking beside Matt. Thankfully his bow was tied, unstrung, to his pack, but now he wore a knife visible at his hip, continually touching the grip with his hand.
“Are you sure you know where we’re going?” Finn asked, trying to keep it light. “That map in the Book wasn’t very specific.”
“It was enough,” Kenneth said. “The conduit hasn’t moved in a few thousand years, and the Guardians have to be there.”
“Still, I wish I’d been able to find more about them in the Tome” Cassie said. Even now she hadn’t figured out how to navigate the thing. It was a frustrating burden in her pack—full of information that could help them, but virtually inaccessible. “From what Mercutio wrote they don’t seem to like outsiders. It might be hard to get them to cooperate.”
“You’re the Queen,” Kenneth said. “At the end of the day, their kindred has a responsibility to you and the Craftlings just like everyone else. They’ll respect your authority.”
“Wait, they’re a kindred?” Finn said. “I thought they were just guards.”
“No, the Sprights as a whole race stepped up and vowed to protect the Covenant,” Kenneth said. “They’re technically the seventh kindred. But I told you they keep to themselves. They always have. I’ve never seen one. I don’t think I can even name someone who has. Didn’t you notice that only six sages showed up to the Consulate?”
“I was a little preoccupied at the time,” Cassie said. “But if they’re not even showing up to the Consulate, I can’t imagine they care as much about the chain of command as you do.”
“A whole race shut up in one place,” Finn mused. “Sounds like that compound my crazy aunt lives on in Arizona. They don’t like visitors either.”
“I heard that the Sprights are notorious illusionists,” Matt put in. “They trick trespassers into wandering in circles through the woods until they die. And that’s just the people who were on their land by accident.”
“Enough!” Kenneth shouted. “I said everything’s going to be fine and it will be. We aren’t some lost children playing in the woods. We’re the Royal Party. And you,” he added, glaring at Matt.
“Hey, I’m royal too.”
Kenneth ignored him. “They’ll let us in.”
They walked the rest of the way to the field in silence. The transport stone was embedded in a rock on the ground, covered in moss. Kenneth grabbed Matt’s arm rather forcefully as he knelt, brushing the stone clear. Matt held out his hand. “Your Majesty?”
“Um…thanks,” Cassie said, taking his hand and giving Finn her other one.
One short spell later and they were standing in a forest.
Cassie took a deep breath. This wasn’t the giant forests of Renalia or the vast lands of the Dragonworld. The smell that filled her lungs now was the deep, rich scent of Earth. They were surrounded by familiar trees covered in plain moss, and good old-fashioned dirt stuck to Cassie’s sneakers. She stretched her arms over her head. “Now this is a mission I like,” she said. “These are just like the woods down by that bike path where we used to play as kids, remember?”
“Of course I remember,” Finn said. “I crashed my bike into a tree twice.” She rubbed her elbow where she’d earned a scar.
“Why would you do it twice?” Matt said.
“Well it was so much fun the first time…” Finn rolled her eyes. She turned in a circle. “Where exactly are we, anyway?”
“I’m not sure,” Kenneth said. “I put in the closest coordinates to the conduit but it’s not exactly a concrete location. I think we’re in the Atlantic Ocean, maybe? Earth’s geography has changed a little since this place was part of the world.”
“Dimensional rifts are tricky,” Matt said. “But as long as these are the right woods, we’ll find them eventually. Or, more specifically, they’ll find us.”
“Lovely,” Cassie said under her breath. She exhaled loudly. “Well, we might as well make a nice walk out of it.” She touched her head to make sure the crown was still there. Kenneth had insisted she wear it today. “If there are any sprights out there, you’re welcome to join us at any time,” she called. When nothing but the birds answered, she shrugged and started walking. The others followed.
Judging by the sun they walked in a straight line all morning. Aside from a few startled squirrels, the woods seemed to be uninhabited. For lunch Finn set up a small picnic by a stream. Mary had pushed quite a bit of food on them, so she made a nice spread. As much as they could, they tried to keep going in the same direction during the afternoon, but the further they went into the woods, the closer the trees grew together and it was harder to determine the position of the sun.
Kenneth put a hand on a tree trunk and tried to feel out the direction using magic. He sighed and shook his head. “Nothing,” he said. “Maybe an elemental could source it out, but the essence isn’t telling me anything. Everything is at the same intensity and it’s all twisted around like…”
“Like someone is leading you in circles?” Matt said. “I told you this would happen.”
“It’s not happening,” Kenneth protested. “The magic is strong here, that’s all. You’re a forger, can’t you sense anything?”
“It’s like trying to catch a single raindrop in a storm,” Matt said. “I couldn’t even tell you the soil content right now.”
“Great,” Finn hit a tree with the side of her fist. “So what do we do now? If the sprights wanted to talk to us, wouldn’t something have happened by now?”
“Maybe they just want to see us suffer first,” Cassie said. “Like a test. The big mysterious races all seem to love testing people.”
“Or they probably don’t want a Dacruum anywhere near them,” Kenneth said. “I told you bringing him would be a bad idea.”
“I hardly think I’m the problem,” Matt said.
“One of the main purposes of the Guardians is to protect the conduit from your people,” Kenneth said. “Obviously they’re not going to meet with us while we’re dragging the goddamned prince around.”
“Ooh, swearing in English,” Matt mocked him. “I’ve learned a few words you might like to hear you c—”
“Look!” Finn shouted. They all turned to look where she was pointing. A blue light, no more than a wisp of color in the shadow of the trees, was floating behind them. “It must be a sign from the sprights.”
Cassie stepped forward cautiously. When she touched the light it bounced up, and floated away a few feet. “I guess…we follow it.” Cassie said. They picked up their packs and trudged quickly after the light. It dipped in and around the trees, staying just out of reach. As the sun started to set, it became easier to see and it picked up its pace. It was dark by the time the light finally stopped. In a puff, it disappeared.
They all dropped their packs to the ground, breathing heavily. “Well that was fun,” Finn panted. “But what now?”
Cassie looked around. This part of the woods looked no different than any other. The trees cast long shadows and animals rustled in the undergrowth. She called out, tentatively, “Hello?”
“Hello,” came the answer. The four of them drew closer together, searching the darkness for the source of the voice.
“Who are you?” Cassie demanded with only a small squeak in her voice.
She saw the eyes first. Bright and silver like the moon itself. Then slowly, as her vision focused, Cassie was able to make out the rest of the person standing beside the tree a few feet away. It was a young woman, barely five feet tall. She blended well into the forest, her clothes like faded leaves, her skin the color of bark. She was slender like a child, with a pointed nose and small ears. As she stepped forward, Cassie realized that the shadows behind her were wings, folded neatly against her back. Clear and transparent like a dragonfly’s, they caught the meager starlight with every movement.
“I am of little consequence,” the woman said. “It is my masters who have brought you here, and it is they you should worry about, Your Majesty.” She smiled, giving a small bow without lowering her head.
“Where are your masters?” Cassie asked warily.
“I will lead you now,” the woman said. “It is not far.”
“Ok...” Cassie picked up her pack. The woman turned and began to lead them through the trees. Before she could start to follow, Kenneth grabbed Cassie’s arm.
“Cassie,” he whispered urgently, “we need to be careful here. These aren’t the sprights. She’s a faerie.”
“Why do you sound scared of faeries?” Cassie whispered back.
“Trust me, everyone should be scared of faeries.”
“Is something wrong?” The woman asked, turning back.
Cassie pulled her arm from Kenneth’s grip. “No, everything’s fine.” She looked at the others. “Come on guys, let’s go.”
The faerie woman really only led them a few feet, but Cassie saw Kenneth and Matt wince, as if a layer of magic had hit them. Soon they stepped forward into a large clearing.
It was about the size of a basketball court with the edges rounded and pushed out. Globes of light, steady white this time, floated near the treetops, illuminating the whole clearing. What they showed was a small court, chatting and laughing and gaming together in groups scattered around the clearing. At the other end were three obvious thrones, carved out of tree stumps and held together with vines. All the faeries fell silent when the humans walked in. Not all of them looked like their little guide. Some were bigger or smaller, horned, pointy eared, green, blue, brown. The only similarities between them all were their large eyes and thin wings. Cassie tried not to stare around her as the faerie woman brought them straight through the center of the clearing to the thrones. The woman bowed to the three faeries sitting there and stepped away, fading perfectly into the crowd. Cassie looked over her shoulder, but she couldn’t see where the woman had gone.
“Good even Your Majesty,” said the woman sitting on the center throne, nodding to Cassie. Then she gave a nod to Matt, “Your Highness. You are, indeed, the last people I would expect to wander into this wood. Especially together.” She was tall for a faerie, with deep ridges above her eyes like a natural crown. Her hair was uneven, long on one side and shorter on the other, layered and spiked around her face. She tapped her long, thin fingers on the armrest of her throne.
“I apologize if we trespassed,” Cassie said nervously, “it wasn’t our intention.”
“You thought you would barge right into the woods and the sprights would welcome you,” the man to Cassie’s right said, shaking his head. “You have to admire that kind of hubris.” For a faerie, he looked almost human—his skin, the shape of his head, his neatly cut hair. But he had the eyes, and the wings, and a bit of a point to his ears.
“You would, more than any of us,” the first woman said to him. Turning back to Cassie she said, “What interests me is the reason you would come. Tell me, what course brings you here to these woods?”
“No offense,” Matt said, “but that’s our business. We didn’t mean to trouble you. If you would just point the way out of here…”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” she interrupted him, smiling. “This is our wood you are travelling through. It would be…inappropriate to let you on your way without a proper vetting. Why do you think we are here? The conduit is ours as much as it is the Craftlings’. If you want to see the sprights, you’ll need to convince us why.”
“Is that right?” Kenneth said. “I’m sure the sprights would appreciate you guarding their borders like this. If they knew. But our mission is sensitive, we can’t just divulge that information to you.”
“Listen to you,” the woman to the left said. She was older, with lined grey skin and golden eyes. There were spikes on her elbows and her shock white hair flowed gracefully down to her waist. “Taking charge, advocating for the Queen. Your father would be proud.”
“What do you know about my father?” Kenneth said.
“Only what I can divine from you,” she said. “You have quite a few issues with him. You should look into that.”
Finn put a hand on Kenneth’s chest to keep him from charging forward and rebutting. “Look, I don’t know very much about faeries, at least not real ones, but we’d be happy to sit down and talk about what’s going on if you’d do us the same courtesy. Who exactly are you? What do you want?”
The woman in the center laughed. “I like you. You’re the wildcard, aren’t you? I love wildcards. And underdogs. They upset the balance.”
“Don’t get sympathetic now,” the other woman said. “You heard what she called us.” To Finn, “Your ignorance betrays you, you know. You’ll never prove your worth as a Second like that.”
“Oh be civil, Ardor,” the man said. “She’s one of us, technically. Whatever’s important enough to bring the Queen and the Prince together, I for one am glad our people have a voice in it.”
“Thanks, I think,” Finn said. “But I’m not really much of a Malcoh.”
“Maybe not yet,” he said.
Ardor narrowed her big eyes and looked Finn up and down for an uncomfortably long moment. Suddenly, she snapped her fingers and another faerie jumped to her side. “Get some seats for our guests,” she ordered him. “It looks like we’re going to have a nice, long chat.”
A group of younger faeries brought out four tree stumps. It was a marvel that creatures so slight could carry such heavy seats. Each one thumped sturdily on the ground, almost as if the trees they had once been had rooted there all along. Awkwardly, the four of them sat down. Kenneth remained on the edge of his stump, ready to jump up at a moment’s notice. Finn didn’t look any more settled. Matt set his bag close to his side, weapons easily at hand. Cassie took a deep breath and tried her best to seem in control. She touched the crown on her head to remind herself that it was there.
“So,” Ardor said. “You want us to tell you our story, do you? Fine with me. Tell me, what stories have you heard about the fey?”
“I meant no disrespect,” Finn said. “After so long without you, the stories have changed a lot. I know they don’t represent you accurately anymore.”
“Of course they don’t,” Ardor said. “But I’d have hoped a daughter of the gypsies would have heard different stories. Am I wrong?”
“I…” Finn hesitated, unsure. Her eyes searched the ground. Softly she said, “my mother once said that the fey were the pieces of humankind that had fallen away as society grew. She said that if you look into their eyes, you see the worst of yourself. They lure people into the forest with promises of everything they’ve ever wanted and kill them.” Finn looked up. “But that doesn’t mean—“
“That’s exactly true,” the faerie in the center said. She sat straighter in her throne. “We are not the flitting pixies or the stately elves that others might have you believe in. When you look at us, you do not see pretty faerie queens or a kind-hearted king. We are the children of god, and the foil of humanity.”
“The more your people take over the Earth, the less room we have,” the man said. “Our group here is larger than we would normally like. But we do right by our kin. The three of us are no monarchs, but we are true Nephilim. Do you know what that means?”
“No, I don’t,” Finn said.
“It’s in the bible,” Cassie said quietly. “Isn’t it? The Nephilim were the children of the angels, made in blasphemy by coupling with humans. They were the reason god declared humans mortal, so that he and the angels would be forever separate from us.”
“Very good,” Ardor said. “I’m surprised you remember so much. Once we were children of the divine. Now we hide and sit in exile, guarding the last vestiges of nature left to this planet. Such dreams I’m sure our parents never had for us.”
“They intended us to be a force of morality for the children of god,” the man said. “What you say about looking into our eyes is true. Would any of you care to try?” He smiled at each of them before continuing. “We were meant to embody the sins and virtues of humanity. Ardor for instance represents the drive and desire that pushes you to dream and create. Or to destroy each other. Beside me is Discord, that beautiful chaos that creates new destiny. And I…I am Pride: the cause of every fall and the root of every evil.”
“That’s not something I would be proud of,” Matt said. “You honestly expect us to believe that faeries are the children of angels? If you really had divine power then—“
“Who said anything about power?” Discord cut him off. “To be divine, truly divine, you need the blessing of god. Our parents fell for what they did, and we are as mortal as they became. Our strength lies in creating the fey race and curbing the human.”
“And that is why we cannot let you pass,” Pride said with a smile. “Because as royalty, and the companions of royalty, you must be held to higher standards than any other. And because when the forces of the universe begin to move, we will not be left behind.”
Cassie swallowed thickly. Even Kenneth was beginning to look scared. Revealing their plans to the Nephilim was different than sharing their stories with Mary or Grandmother. There was no guarantee that these people would be on their side, and no telling what they might do with the information even if they were. However, if Cassie didn’t do something soon, she and her friends would join the rest of the lost children forever. Crown she reminded herself, you have the crown. Cassie stood. “If you want to be one of the forces of the universe, then I would hope that you’d want to help us protect it. And that starts with your discretion. If you swear to that, then we will share our mission with you. We might even appreciate your input.”
The three Nephilim looked at each other, their large eyes exchanging a wordless conversation. Cassie tried not to look directly at them. “All right,” Discord said. She lifted a hand and there was a flash around them. A small bubble, like Kenneth’s shield, appeared and disappeared, cutting all seven seats off from the other fey in the clearing. “By my blood as one of the Nephilim I swear to keep confidence with you, Your Majesty,” Discord said. The other two repeated her words.
Cassie sat awkwardly. “Thank you. So…” she swallowed, “what we have to talk about is a very serious matter.”
With help from the others, Cassie went through the entire story for the faeries. The Ultimate Power, the prophecies. As she talked it was hard to believe that these things that would once have sounded so silly to her could be so serious now. All the things that the myths hadn’t quite forgotten—unicorns and dwarves, even faeries—if people could see the truth she wondered if anyone would dream fondly of a world of magic again.
When the story was finished, there was silence. The bubble shut out even the sounds of the forest, creating an almost painful stillness. Finally, Discord said, “The Ultimate Power.” She shook her head. “I never thought I would see it, even in a life as long as mine. The greatest of upheavals; the ender of worlds.”
“Even I never imagined that the Blood King’s lust for power could grow so great,” Ardor admitted. “I’d thought that with his takeover he had at least risen to where he wanted. But it seems he means to dethrone god himself.”
“If you know my father,” Matt said, “then you know he’ll stop at nothing. He thinks that only the greatest power in the universe is worthy enough to protect our realm.”
“Not even that,” Pride said. “If you are to stop him, you should know. The power he seeks is not part of our universe.”
“What do you mean?” Matt said. “I thought that the Ultimate Power came from destroying the borders.”
“You left before you could learn the true depth of your father’s sins,” Ardor said sadly. “The fabric of the universe must be torn, yes, but not repurposed. To summon the Ultimate Power, one must open a gate.”
“The monsters,” Cassie said suddenly. “The monsters from another dimension. Are they the Ultimate Power?”
“How do you know about them?” Discord asked. “It has been many thousands of years since last a true demon walked here.”
“I saw them in a vision,” Cassie told them. “It’s not for sure, but it’s possible that they might return. I thought it would be a consequence of the summoning, but if the Emperor is attempting to control them…”
“It is not control that he seeks,” Pride said. “You see, our universe is still newborn compared to what lies beyond. The matter of another dimension is singularly tenfold as powerful as our strongest being. And the creatures that inhabit that dimension? Well they are made of the very blood of God. A small amount true, but more than we could ever dream. The Ultimate Power is that spark of the divine that remains in those creatures. What Thanas plans is to attempt to absorb that strength. If he can take the blood of a demon and merge it with his own, he would be unstoppable.”
“But it’s not possible,” Cassie said, “to do something like that. Is it?”
Discord twitched her wings uncomfortably. “It’s never been done before. In theory, the reaction would tear all creation apart in a single blast, but perhaps there is some unknown way to achieve it. Thanas is strong; his chance is better than most. Still, even if he became such a power, the taint of blasphemous magic would corrode the balance of the universe. That disruption would then spread into the other dimensions until all that is or ever was comes crashing down around us. That is more discord than even I can allow.”
“Well,” said Kenneth, “the one thing we’ve always known about the Ultimate Power is that it will be the end of the world. We still have a chance to stop it. If we return to the state of Creation, Thanas won’t be able to make a gate in the first place. Right?”
“True,” Ardor said, “But your task is not so simple. You have learned the steps of Mercutio’s Rite, haven’t you?”
“More or less,” Cassie said.
“You should study it more carefully then,” Ardor warned. “We were there,” she glanced at her companions, “or at least I was when the sprights gave in to Mercutio’s demands. And I know that to change the state, the conditions for the Covenant must be met exactly. The same as they were in the beginning. However you choose to bring the powers together, you should know that human magic is not the ingredient you need.”
“What do you mean?” Kenneth asked. “Humans are the first kindred. The covenant was supposed to include all seven.”
“And it did,” Ardor said. “But back then humans were not considered one of the kindreds. The true first kindred was—“
“The Sentinels,” Kenneth realized. “But they stepped aside for the humans when the Order was created. No one knows where they are or what happened to them.”
“They stuck around,” Pride said. “For a time at least. Guardians of the people and whatnot. They saw that humans would bring order and stability to the realm. The Sentinels wanted to learn and create, to protect the people in their own way. They never disappeared, merely wandered out of reach. You might find them again, somehow. You will need to if you expect to perform the Rite.”
“If Mercutio found them, so can we,” Finn said.
“Unfortunately, it won’t work that way,” Pride said. “The Sentinels didn’t disappear until after the reign of Aurora. They were still a constant presence in Mercutio’s day. It is said that the last Sentinel ever seen was a woman standing in the crowd when Aurora cast her blessing on the realm.”
“So in other words, we have no leads,” Cassie said. “And without the Sentinels, we won’t be able to perform the Rite. In the time it takes to find them, the Emperor could open a thousand gates.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Discord said sadly. “The Sentinels were always good friends to us. We assumed that they left word of where they were going with the Craftling royal family, but if they did…”
“Then the information died with Gran,” Cassie finished. “There’s so much that she had to pass on to me, so much I needed to know.” Cassie looked up at the faeries. “There’s not…I mean there’s no way to contact the dead, is there? If magic is real, can’t séances be real too?”
“If only they were,” Kenneth said. “The dead are dead, whatever you believe happens to them. A lot of lives have been wasted trying to reach the other side.”
“And a lot of money has been made pretending to,” Finn added. “If there was anything your grandmother knew that no one else did, then it must be in the Book somewhere. Maybe if you focus your training on that we can find these Sentinel people before it’s too late.”
“If my father is trying to open a gate, he must be getting close,” Matt said. “I don’t know how much time we really have before he succeeds. The prophecy Julian handed down mentions a monster. Specifically that ‘he will spill the blood of the people to feed the monster.’ I thought it was just some kind of metaphor, but if it is an actual monster, my father may already have found it. That sacrifice I told you about? He took the people to a wasteland planet in the Daeorian system. A perfect place for a gate.”
“Gathering the power for the Rite will take time,” Pride said. “You need to know how much you have. Returning to the state of Creation is not the goal here. Thanas must be stopped at all costs. Are there other measures that you have considered?”
“Since you told us a minute ago that we’re missing a key ingredient for the rite?” Cassie said. “No, I haven’t.” Still, as she said it she knew what the alternative would eventually be. Regardless of the Rite or the Ultimate Power, war would come. Perhaps if she gathered enough forces they could strike Emperor Thanas down before it was too late. Cassie thought about the two wars she had seen in her vision: one full of monsters, ending in Matt’s death, and another chaos and blood ending in patricide. “We can’t give up on the Rite,” Cassie said. “Not yet. Any alternate plans involve too much bloodshed. We did all of this to avoid that.”
Ardor shook her head, a sly smile on her face. “Truly an inspiration. You are nothing like your mother, child.”
“You’re the first person to say so,” Cassie said.
“Oh you share some of the more obvious qualities, it’s true,” Ardor said. “Strength, independence, a certain disregard for tradition. But she would sacrifice a thousand men to protect the things she loves, and you, you would give it all up for the sake of saving a single life. That kind of devotion and loyalty is something we all look for in our leaders. However, you should know that it can be your downfall as well. The more you care, the more you try to save everyone, the more you will have to give of yourself. In some ways it’s better to just let others die.”
Cassie stood angrily. “I won’t let anyone die for me. As the heir of Mercutio, I inherit his mistakes. And I will rectify them. I’m not naive enough to think that I can save everyone, but I will save everyone that I can. And if I have to sacrifice my life for the sake of the entire universe, it’s a small price to pay.”
“As it is written,” Ardor said, a smile on her thin grey lips, “so shall it be.”