Point of No Return
It was a long, awkward trip back to the base of operations. Piper got them past the city guards all right, but she stayed a few steps behind them for the long hike into the foothills. Kenneth adopted an awkward sideways walk in order to keep an eye on her that, with his hood down to improve his vision, made him look like a spikey-headed crab. Finn kept glancing over her shoulder. Unafraid, Cassie took the lead, Matt’s last words playing through her head. If he was sure, she would be sure.
When they reached the cave, Piper halted and crossed her arms. “Ok, we’re ‘safe’. Now tell me what’s going on.”
Cassie sat down on a rock near the mouth of the cave. “You might want to sit too,” she told Piper. “It’s a long story.”
Piper eyed Kenneth, who stood between her and the girls like a guard, knife still in hand. Finn sat down with her back against the rock. “Don’t worry, he’s mostly harmless.” To Kenneth she said, “Can you at least sit down? You’re making me nervous.”
“Someone has to be concerned for our safety here,” Kenneth said.
Piper sighed and sat down in the dirt. “I’m not a danger to any of you. That’s why Matt gave you the ring, isn’t it? So I’d know you were his allies. I knew he was going into enemy territory, I just didn’t realize you were what he was looking for.”
“So he did tell you what he was doing,” Cassie said.
“Not really,” said Piper. “He thought it would be safer for me not to know. And he was right, really. Things have been dangerous around here lately. But Matt told me about the prophecy, and what his father was capable of. He made me promise to take over if anything happened to him.”
“Do you know what’s happened to him?” Cassie asked. “After he was arrested, I mean.”
“I know he’s in a holding cell under the castle,” Piper said. “But beyond that I’ve tried not to ask too many questions. They know that he and I were childhood friends, so I’m automatically under suspicion. I’ve been able to avoid an inquiry so far but if you’re planning on breaking him out—“
“We’re not planning on that.” Kenneth said quickly. “We only came here because Matthias was supposed to help us, and we need you to fill that role instead.”
“We were working together,” Cassie said. “To stop all this Ultimate Power business.” Once again Cassie found herself telling her story. With every retelling it became even harder to believe. She glossed over the details of Matt’s interrogation and didn’t mention anything about the court or who she and the others really were. Instead she focused on the Rite and the revelations that the faeries had shared about its requirements. She ended with Matt’s arrest, and the words he’d frantically whispered in her ear. “All we needed was to find the Sentinels,” Cassie finished. “With Matt’s power we could perform the Rite quickly and without any casualties. But without him…”
“You’re back at square one,” Piper agreed. She exhaled slowly. “Now I see why he didn’t want to tell me any of this. But what I don’t understand is why he would let himself get arrested. It doesn’t make sense. He’d have a better chance of protecting you by standing and fighting. And if he wanted something done at court he could have just asked me to do it. That’s why he gave me this stupid charm in the first place.” She pulled on the leather thong around her neck, revealing the charm hidden under her shirt.
“So his ring was a communicator,” Kenneth said. During the course of the story he’d finally sat down, but his long knife was still in his hands. “Why couldn’t he have just told us that? We could have called you instead of doing this.”
“It’s probably keyed to his genetic signature,” Piper said. “He was storing information in it that he wouldn’t want anyone else to see. He said it would be instructions for me; I can access them with my charm. But that part makes even less sense. Obviously he wants me to help you, but I don’t know how. Whatever he told you, I don’t have the same power that he does. I’m a Rider. I can hit a target from 70 mets in the air at almost 30 pliks an hour, but magic forging is a whole other story. And even if I had the ability, Matt’s one of the best at it in the realm. Raw form like that, it’s an expert technique. And the only other masters I can think of who use it certainly won’t be open to helping you thwart the Emperor.”
“Perfect,” Kenneth said. “Why would he send us to you if you aren’t able to pick up where he left off?” Kenneth asked.
“I don’t know,” Piper said. “Maybe I’m just the only one he could trust. With the way things have been around here allies are few and far between.”
“Well we have the full resources of the Craftlings behind us,” Cassie said, “but without the ability to direct the power like that, the only way to anchor the requirements for the Rite is within myself. I thought Matt was destined to be a part of this, but maybe I’m just destined to—
“To what, die?” Finn interrupted. “Absolutely not. Matt sent us to you for a reason, Piper. Maybe there’s something else you can help us with. To help him.”
“No,” Kenneth objected. “I see where this is going and I forbid it.”
“So you’ve got a better idea then?” Finn said. “We’ve been over this Kenneth, there’s no other way to perform the Rite. Unless you’re asking Cassie to sacrifice her life?”
“I’m not asking that,” Kenneth said. “But are you asking me to save the life of the man who murdered my family, my people, almost me?”
“I’m sorry,” Finn said. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. But we need him. You can’t deny that.”
“Wait a minute,” Piper interjected. “Are we really talking about breaking into the castle and freeing a known traitor? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? If it’s even possible.”
“I don’t know if it’s possible, but it’s the only option we have,” Finn said. “You said yourself that there’s no one else capable of forging that kind of power that would be willing to help us.”
“I know,” Piper said. “Matt once tried to teach me how to make one of those energy tattoos. I could shape the pattern well enough, but the magic just kept absorbing into my skin. If I tried that on you,” she smiled half-heartedly at Cassie, “with the volume of power you’re talking about, it would kill you.” Thoughtfully, she added, “If we could break him out, it would be easier than producing an alternative. And that’s saying something.”
Kenneth threw his knife to the ground and stood, rubbing his eyes hard with one hand. Cassie was glad she couldn’t see what color they were now. “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe my life depends on that son of a bitch.”
Piper looked up at him. “By ‘Kenneth’ and virtue of that hair,” she motioned with her hand to indicate Kenneth’s spikes, “I’m guessing you’re Kenneth L’Athea?”
“Yeah so?” He said.
“I’ve been friends with Matt my whole life,” Piper said. “Let’s just say he’s mentioned you. I know what he’s done, and I know I’d hate him if I were you, but…if it helps, I think he respected you. In his way. Matt’s never been the soldier that his father, or even he, wanted him to be. He doesn’t know I know this, but he lights a candle after every battle for the men he’s killed. I know he prayed for your uncle. And he sacrificed a lot just by intending to help you.”
“He wasn’t helping me,” Kenneth protested. “A mutual desire to keep the universe intact doesn’t make him my new best friend. You can say all the nice things you want about him; I won’t do this. I don’t share these two’s fantastic notion about destiny bringing us all together.”
“I had a vision of the future where we were all together,” Cassie explained to Piper. “I wasn’t sure at first, but it’s looking more and more like I saw how the Rite will finally be accomplished. And Matt was there.” She looked up at Kenneth. “Uniting ‘what hasn’t been for many hundreds of years’, remember?”
“Prophecies are misleading,” Kenneth said. “When was the last time the royal families were ever united?”
“We have an old fairy tale about a Craftling Prince,” Piper offered. “He was a seer who had a vision of our princess and fell instantly in love. They had one of those torrid love affairs and they even tried to run away together. Their love united their families…in killing them.”
“As beautiful as that story is,” Kenneth said, “I’m still not convinced. And I certainly won’t let either of you,” he looked to Cassie and Finn, “try breaking into the Imperial Castle without any resources or backup.”
Piper stood up. “I’m not convinced we should do it either, but it’s not like we don’t have any resources.” She took a few steps away from the cave, facing outward. Arms spread, she tilted her head back and whistled one low note and one high. She turned back to them. “I think I know a way we can get into the castle undetected. Maybe not back out, but I can get in.”
“How exactly?” Finn stood warily. The sound of wings rose around them.
“Every entrance to the castle is guarded, except the roost,” Piper said. “See, there are three towers, and the Aerie is the on the west corner. The Riders live there. Other soldiers don’t like to be around because they’re scared of our mounts. And with the Vaeor up there, there’s no way intruders could get past anyway. So if I brought you in myself, there’d be no one to stop us. It’d put you right in the heart of the castle. Whether or not that’s a good thing though…”
For a moment the moon disappeared as a huge shape floated toward them, wings spread across the sky. At first, Cassie thought it was a giant bird, but as the creature drew closer she had to stop herself from screaming at the sight. The animal’s back end, though about the size of a horse, looked like a panther’s hind legs, with a thin black tail ending in a mace of spikes. Its front paws were still paws, but the claws were long and thick like talons. Feathers started about halfway up its body and continued over its neck and head. It had pointed jackal’s ears and eyes that glowed yellow in the night, but like a vulture its face arched forward into a long beak with ridges that almost resembled teeth. As it flew toward them on wings no less than a hundred feet across, Cassie could see how agile it was, and despite the strangeness of its parts, there was a sleek efficiency to their sum that was oddly elegant.
The Vaeor touched down lightly in the dirt behind Piper and came forward, sniffing curiously at her hair. She put an arm over its great neck, petting the creature’s beak. “Everyone, this is Alastair,” she said. “He can help us.” Alastair gave a short yip of recognition.
Cassie stood up slowly, keeping her back to the cave wall. “He’ll fly us to that tower?” Piper nodded. Cassie tried not to meet the beast’s eyes. She turned to Finn. “Getting in is just the beginning though. How are we going to break Matt out?”
“I don’t know,” Finn admitted. “But we’ve come too far to give up now. If the castle is anything like the Craftling palace, I don’t think sneaking around will be the issue. Especially with Piper to help us. Our real problem is the cell guards.” Finn turned to Piper. “Do you think your…Alastair would be willing to cause a distraction?”
Piper unslung her arm from her mount. “What kind of distraction are we talking about?”
“Big enough to distract the guards when they change shifts,” Finn said. “If people are as scared of him as you say, he can clear a decent path for us. Can you draw me a layout of the castle?”
Finn and Piper began doodling an attack plan in the dirt by the light of the moon. Piper was reluctant to use her Vaeor as a decoy, but she soon got caught up in the excitement of Finn’s ideas. Kenneth walked away in disgust. Cassie followed him.
“It’s our only choice,” she said when she finally caught up to him.
Kenneth crossed his arms and sighed. He’d paused at the top of a nearby hill. The moon was giant in the sky from where they stood. “Maybe it is. But I’ll never be ok with it. Fighting I could have handled, but you’re asking me to save the life of a man who once stabbed me in the heart.”
“I thought he tried to cut off your arm,” Cassie said.
“He wouldn’t aim for my arm,” Kenneth said. He lifted his shirt and in the moonlight Cassie could see the ugly, twisted scar in the middle of his chest. “When he got through my shield the only thing I had to block the sword with was my arm. He just cut right through it.” Kenneth pulled his shirt back down. “I was lucky my men got to him right away, and that a healer was with them. She had to spent most of her energy on my torn lung and pierced heart so that’s how I ended up with scars. Just because I survived doesn’t mean his killing blow was unsuccessful.”
“I’m sorry,” Cassie said, and meant it. “Being near him must be torture. If he wasn’t necessary…”
“But he is.” Kenneth shook his head. “I know that, I do. But I hate this, Cassie. I don’t trust him or her,” he gestured to Piper, “or any of them. War is coming, you know that better than anyone. And these are our enemies. He who thinks he has tamed the beast will inevitably be bitten. We can’t afford to get bitten.”
“As much as I am terrified of the Emperor, and the Dogs, and the whole war machine, Matt and Piper have given us no reason to distrust them. Your concerns are valid, I get it. But I also think that the Matt that stabbed you that day is not the same one that needs our help now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means people aren’t themselves when the adrenaline is high and blood is flowing everywhere. I’ve seen you kill before, and it was scary how different you were. As many times as you may have faced each other in combat, you and Matt never actually met before the other day. They say dehumanizing the enemy is the only way to cope with war. Maybe you just don’t want to admit that the Dacruum are people too.”
“I know they’re people,” Kenneth said. “Only people are capable of horrible things.”
Cassie exhaled in a puff through her nose. “That’s certainly true. But think of it this way: we’re as much the scary killers to them as they are to us. Is it so bad to trust? To truly believe that this cause is important enough to put all that hatred aside?”
“Peace like that is a beautiful notion,” Kenneth said, “but it’s only that.” Kenneth ran his fingers through his hair and turned to face her. “Look, Cassie…there’s something I haven’t told you. Something about Audrey.”
Cassie was instantly wary. She looked up at Kenneth searchingly. With the light in his face, it was hard to tell what color his eyes were. “What is it?” she said.
Kenneth hesitated. “It’s…do you remember what I told you about how your grandmother died?”
“Yes…” Cassie said slowly.
“It was all true,” he assured her. “I never lied to you. It’s just…I left out something. See, Audrey was a Seer. And when Seers die, their life energy is channeled into a last vision. With that kind of power, their life force, they can see what the average Seer can’t. The future. The real future. There’s a saying actually, that the only true prophecy comes on a dying breath.”
“And you were talking to her,” Cassie realized. “You heard her final words.”
“‘Heir of light and longing,” Kenneth quoted, “‘Blood has set you on your path and only blood will redeem you. Yours is the strength of Kings, but even such a power can be undone by betrayal. Peace and perfect union are but notions, made real only through sacrifice. And freedom itself is a privilege awarded by the powerful. Remember the words of the Covenant, and that bonds made in hardship can never be broken. Follow the hands of fate: watch with them, fly with them, but do not fall with them. For you are the compass, the rock that will hold the pieces of the universe together. In the hands of the divine, we will always be protected.’”
Cassie was quiet for a long time. Kenneth didn’t seem willing to break the silence. After a while, she said, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know,” Kenneth said. “When I heard it, I didn’t even know that you existed. I thought that she was describing what we, her court, would have to do without a queen. Freedom, old bonds, sacrifice. Knowing about the Ultimate Power, I just thought that we needed to band together as a people. The Craftlings could become the compass, the rock. I thought it was her way of blessing us to take over.”
“You were trying to take over the throne?”
“For two weeks,” Kenneth said. “I knew that Elysiaa had made prophecies about the Ultimate Power, and I thought that if we could prove what Audrey found, the Consulate would declare a state of martial law and allow us to move against the Dacruum. Peace bought with sacrifice, accumulating power to assure our freedom. I thought that was what we needed, what Audrey wanted. But now…when Morris came to me and told me there was another candidate for the throne I hoped just as much as he did that you would be our queen. And you and Finn made all my plans completely moot. I thought instead of adding another prophecy to the mix and making things even harder for you, I would just do whatever I could to help.”
“You still should have told me,” Cassie said.
“Is this why the councilors hate me so much? Because your mutiny is their plan B?”
“I never told them, I swear. Only Tom and Carl knew. They were just as dedicated as I was to honoring Audrey and doing what was right.”
“And now? Are they even on your side anymore? That thing with Christian…maybe they’re going on with your plan without you.”
“They’re not,” Kenneth said. “They wouldn’t. They…ok, Tom has been giving Christian orders he says are from me. Making him do research into a lot of old laws and rituals. And he looked up Finn’s history all the way back to the gypsies. Tom isn’t the most trusting person in the world, but I know he won’t do anything stupid. And Carl will keep him in line until I get back. I even went to Farand and told him about the whole thing, that he should stick to your plan at all costs. He gave his word, and you know what’s that’s worth.”
“How could you not have told me this?” Cassie said. “This jeopardizes everything that we’re working for.”
“So does working with Dacruum,” Kenneth said. “Tom and Carl aren’t the ones who are going to betray you, I can promise that. Whatever uncertainties they may have, they still have faith in you. But you can’t say the same for them,” Kenneth pointed toward the city.
Cassie rubbed her temples. “I trust you Kenneth, I do. I know that you were only ever trying to do the right thing. I can even almost understand why you didn’t tell me. But Matt is just as much a part of all of this as you are. Maybe more. And I trust him too.” Cassie took a deep breath. “I think you should go, Kenneth. Go back to court.”
“What?” Kenneth said. “Why? I’m not going to leave you here.”
“You said yourself that you don’t want to rescue your worst enemy,” Cassie said. “And it’ll be easier to get three people in and out of the castle than four. I’m not trying to get rid of you, I promise. But if you want to make up for what you did, you need to trust me to be able to take care of myself and Finn. You need to go to court and find your stupid friends and tell them that I am the queen, and the heir, and I’m the only one who gets to worry about the fate of the universe. And when you’re done, we’ll meet up and keep going. All of us. Together.”
Kenneth looked back at the cave where Finn was crouching in the dirt, her blonde hair falling forward, her forehead wrinkled in thought. “It’s not that I don’t think you can protect yourself,” he said, “I just want to be here if something goes wrong.”
“I know you do,” Cassie said. “But it’s better this way. You’ll do better at clearing up court matters than I would. And if something does go wrong…” Cassie twisted Elysiaa’s ring off her finger where she had taken to wearing it. She picked up Kenneth’s hand and placed the ring in his palm, folding his fingers over it. “…You’ll know what you have to do.
Kenneth closed his hand tightly around the ring. “One life for the sake of them all,” he said. “Not exactly fair.”
“We’ll meet you in two days,” Cassie said. “I swear it. It’s not time for sacrifice yet.”
When morning came, Piper and Alastair had to fly off to their duties as usual. Cassie and Finn got a few fitful hours of sleep in the back of the cave. As the afternoon came on, they laid out a nice picnic under the red sky, discussing their upcoming plan over hard bread and jerky. At Finn’s suggestion, they took out sword and staff and had a sparring match, which only succeeded in getting them sweaty and dirty.
Piper returned around sunset to find Cassie kneeling in the dirt, drawing a spell matrix around their baggage. So that they wouldn’t be burdened, Cassie planned to send their bags to the capital, where Kenneth would pick them up. Finn was organizing the things they had deemed necessary to take with them. Piper waved to Finn and walked up behind Cassie. “That’s some neat spellwork you’ve got there.”
“Thanks,” Cassie said. She stood to look down at the circle, making sure it matched the one she’d looked up in the Tome before packing it. “I can’t really do anything complex, but I think I’ve got the hang of the basics.”
“It’s pretty impressive, considering how long you’ve been practicing,” Piper said.
Cassie looked at her sidelong. “How do you know how long I’ve been practicing?”
Piper raised both her eyebrows in a slightly smug expression. “You think I don’t know my enemies? The new queen Cassady and her second Finnia? Although they did say you would be a child queen…” she grinned.
“Don’t remind me,” Cassie said. She turned to face Piper full on. “If you know who we are, then why haven’t you tried to kill us?”
Piper shrugged. “I thought about it, but then I decided I’m not stupid. Sure, it’d be nice if your family died out, but I did promise Matt I’d continue his work, and I don’t think he wants you dead. Besides, I listened to what you said last night. The past few months have been…let’s say troublesome.” She shook her head. “You know the first two things you learn in basic training are to follow orders and to protect the people at all costs. But lately I don’t know if I can do both. And as much as I would love to destroy the Craftling Order as we know it, there are some things that are more important.”
“Well I’m glad to hear you say that,” Cassie said. Turning back towards her spell, she folded her arms across her chest. “Things have been so confusing lately, it’s hard to know if I’m making the right decision.”
“You mean about me?”
Cassie looked off toward the hill where she’d spoken with Kenneth the night before. “About everything,” she said. “So much of this has been based off of fortune telling, and guesswork, and advice from invisible angels I’m still not entirely sure were real. I feel like I’m chasing after a mirage, and the closer I get to it, the more it fades away.”
Piper stepped a little closer. “Isn’t that how destiny is supposed to feel?” she said. “I don’t know anything about prophecies—the Dacruum don’t have the power of the Sight. But I do know that everything happens for a reason. We may not always have control over it, but when things aren’t clear, you just have to have faith that they will be when the time is right.”
“You really believe that?” Cassie said.
“I probably should. I’ve certainly had enough people telling me to. But...I don’t know, I just can’t seem to get on board with the ‘big plan’. No man will ever be anything other than what he was meant to be? It just doesn’t sit well with me. We all make choices, and most of them are stupid, but they’re ours to make. Maybe telling us that there’s a being planning out our moves in advance is just another way to manipulate us into doing what they want.”
“They?” Piper asked.
“Everyone,” Cassie said. “Anyone with something to prove.”
Piper then surprised Cassie by saying, “Don’t you believe in god?”
“God? Which one?”
“The…only one?” Piper said.
Cassie laughed. “I guess that means you believe in one. There are a lot of gods, you know. The Craftlings have like seven or eight or something, I haven’t been around long enough to learn what they are. My mom must have believed in them at some point, but she never really mentioned religion when I was growing up. I did try, at one point. I looked into all the different religions I could find to see if I belonged, but none of them felt…true.” Cassie shrugged. “If there is some all-powerful being out there pulling the strings, I don’t think anything we do is going to affect his decisions. Honestly, I think religion is just a lie we tell ourselves at night to make it feel worth living another day.”
“But it’s true. I’ve been surrounded by prophecies and visions since I first learned I was a Craftling. And the more I find out about the future, or possible future, the more I feel like I’m being manipulated into making a decision I don’t want to make. If there is a god, then why would he set everything up like this? Why send me endless advice that only makes it harder to do the right thing? Why give and take so recklessly?”
“Maybe that’s just part of the ‘big plan’,” Piper said. “God has a lot on his plate, he can’t micromanage everything. I don’t believe that every single choice is predetermined. People make mistakes, people make things messy and horrible. But all that chaos has to come together somehow. It has to be moving toward something. Maybe fate is just a guiding hand, helping us to right the wrongs of the past and make the future that god wants for us.”
“It’s so weird to hear you say that,” Cassie said. “Not because of what you believe, just because I never pictured the Dacruum as a religious kind of people.”
“Why not?” Piper said. “Everyone has a religion, even if they don’t believe in god. It’s all about the way you live your life. You know, a few years ago Matt said something to me that I’ll never forget. It was when I wanted to leave my family and join the riders. I was scared, almost too scared to do it. But he told me that I had to have faith. Faith that that was the life I was meant to live. He said ‘faith takes courage, and a kind of humility that most people don’t even understand. But we all get there eventually. We all walk our own path.’ And I think he was right.”
Looking out at the darkening countryside, Cassie could hear again the voices of the Watchers warning her about her destiny and righting past wrongs. She thought of the Nephilim and what they’d said about the blessings of God and their duty to curb the sins of the human race. Of Elysiaa’s words of divine power and the paths we all must walk. They all believed in something bigger than themselves; something had reached out and shown them the way. Even Piper and Matt had a God to guide them. So why did Cassie feel so alone?
“He’s not wrong,” Cassie said. “When it comes to faith, everyone’s right. It’s just…well faith is sort of a person’s reality. And my reality has changed so much in the past few weeks, it’s hard to see things the way you do.” Cassie knelt down and touched her hand to the circle she’d drawn in the dirt. It started to glow with a warm green light. She hummed softly, reciting the words in her head. It was the same song she’d sung that night when the Book had led her to the Craftlings. She felt the music growing inside her and the magic flowing smoothly into the network of the spell. With one last flash, the baggage disappeared and the circle broke. Cassie stood. “All I can do is keep moving forward, and make sure you don’t lose faith in me.”