Riding Alastair was not as terrifying as Cassie had expected. The Vaeor was strong and sturdy beneath her, and Piper seemed to be trying to keep the ride as smooth as possible. Still, the air rushed by so fast Cassie was sure she and Finn would be ripped off the animal’s back. She closed her eyes to avoid the sight of the ground hundreds of feet below. It was with relief that Cassie slid off Alastair onto the solid floor of the Roost. The tower room was dark, a warm breeze flowing through and carrying with it most of the animal smell. Piper led them into Alastair’s stall for a last check.
“Ok,” she said. “Most of the court should be at dinner by now. The next shift change is in about thirty qir, which should give us just enough time to set up our distraction.”
“If you say so,” Finn said. One of the downsides to interplanetary cooperation was the completely different understandings of time measurement. “Did you find a place where we can lie low until then?”
“Actually, I found the perfect place,” Piper said. “The holding cells are in the basement below this wing. There’s a suite just north of that where you’ll be able to hear the commotion.”
“Are you sure no one’s going to recognize us?” Cassie asked. “I mean, your security has to be better than us putting on fatigues.” She plucked at the dark jacket Piper had lent her.
“It is, just outside. There’s never been a reason to worry before about someone sneaking Craftlings inside. Just act natural and if anyone talks to you, remember to answer in Daeorian.”
“Easier said than…said,” Cassie told Piper. In preparation for their mission at the Sprawl, the Nephilim had given them a crash course in modern Daeorian, but even after some more help from Piper the night before, the girls weren’t able to form more than a few simple sentences. “Hopefully we won’t run into anyone.”
“Theoretically we shouldn’t, but be prepared.” Piper turned to her mount. “Aly, meet me down in the training yard.” He brushed his beak affectionately against her shoulder before turning and flying back out through the empty arch. “Come on,” Piper said.
They snuck down the stairwell until they reached the lift two floors down. Faster than any elevator Cassie had ever ridden before, they dropped to the ground floor. Piper turned immediately down a back corridor to avoid the Rider common areas. A servant’s passage provided good cover out of the Triumvir’s wing. When they emerged into the main corridors again, Cassie was relieved to find them deserted.
“Here it is,” Piper said when they reached a large intersection. “The mess hall is down this way.” She pointed straight ahead of them. “And the dungeon access is up that corridor and to the right. When I’m done with the distraction, we’ll meet back here and run straight to the cells. Right?” she looked to Finn.
Finn nodded approvingly. “Right. Now where are we going to be waiting?”
“Right down here.” Piper led them into the left-hand corridor and around a corner.
Ducking through another service hallway they emerged into a section of the palace that was much nicer than the military wing. Polished floor, high ceilings, and the walls lined with gold-framed paintings and vases on pedestals. “What part of the castle is this?” Cassie wondered aloud.
“The Royal Wing,” Piper answered.
Cassie nearly stopped in her tracks. “The what?”
“Trust me, you’re safe here. With Thanas off in the wastelands killing people and Matt locked up, not even the servants bother to come here very often.”
“What about the Queen?” Cassie said. “I thought Matt’s mom was still alive.”
“She is,” Piper said. “But she’s been on vacation for like six years. She could be anywhere in the universe right now. Not that I blame her. If Thanas were your husband, would you want to spend much time at home?”
“Good point,” Cassie said.
Piper opened a rather plain door on the right and led them into a small sitting room. “This is it,” she said. “The Prince’s Quarters. Seems appropriate.” She grinned. “If you go through there,” she pointed to the door at the back of the room, “the bedroom shares a wall with that corridor to the mess hall. If everything goes as planned, you’ll know exactly when to come out.”
“Thanks Piper,” Finn said. “For everything.”
“Don’t give it a second thought,” Piper said. “If you hadn’t come along, I’d probably have done something a lot stupider than this. I’m glad I can help.” She gave each of them a hug. “See you on the other side.”
Thirty qir turned out be about forty-five minutes. After a brief period of trying to wait politely, the urge to rifle through Matt’s things got the best of them. His room was nothing like the bright, airy quarters Cassie had left behind on Renalia. It was a long, dark, rectangular space filled almost completely with junk. The bed was shoved into a corner next to a large iron brazier. On one wall a target had been painted and, judging by the state of the wall, Matt had used it for more than darts. Everything of value, like papers or personal effects, had been removed, probably when Matt had been declared a traitor. But the soldiers had left behind the haphazard stacks of books, weapons, clothes, even some raw ore. A pile of coal looked like it had been tampered with in an attempt to manufacture diamonds.
“Can you believe some of this stuff?” Finn said as she sorted through the closet. “This guy has more shoes than you and me put together.”
“Look at these maps,” Cassie said from across the room. “They’re like works of art. He has one for every planet in the Realm. Maybe we should take some of these. You never know when they’ll come in handy. Here, come read the titles for me.”
“Just a sec, I think I found the entrance to Narnia.”
“What?” Cassie went to the closet where Finn was prying back a secret panel in the wall. Behind it were a couple of boxes, a thick book, and a spiked ivory ring about the size of a car steering wheel. “What is this?”
“His stash?” Finn picked up the weapon. It was sanded smooth as glass, but it was clearly made of bone. A cross handle in the middle supported the thick ring, and five impossibly thin pieces curved outward forming a second ring of blades. “Don’t know why he’d need to hide this though.”
“No idea,” Cassie said, picking up the first box. “Maybe it’s cursed?”
“I don’t think so. Chakrams are supposed to only channel good magic. Although I’ve never seen one with spikes like this.”
“Seen a lot of chakrams have you?”
“I took an Asian studies class last semester. It’s a sacred weapon in India. But they’re supposed to be for throwing. I don’t know how aerodynamic this would be.”
“I’m not even going to pretend to know,” Cassie said. “But look at this.” The box in her hands was full of pictures. A stern-faced woman with Matt’s eyes, a young Piper trying to avoid being photographed, a very annoyed-looking man with a sword. Cassie handed Finn a picture of three people standing stiffly in a garden. At least, it looked like a garden. Nothing grew green on this planet, and the red light of day was harsh. Matt stood between what had to be his parents, all three of them looking as if they’d rather be doing anything else at the moment. His mother was waifish but tough looking and his father…that was the man from Cassie’s vision. The Emperor. The one who Matt might one day kill.
“So that’s him, huh?” Finn said. “He certainly looks like the kind of guy who’s always trying to compensate for something. I did kind of picture him more…evil looking. Here he just looks angry, and maybe a little sad. How long ago do you think this was taken?”
Cassie took the picture back. “I don’t know. Matt looks, what, fourteen or fifteen? I’m not sure how many years that makes it, but it might have been around the time his dad took power.”
Finn stood and spun the chakram back and forth on her finger, testing the weight. “Maybe that’s why he put this stuff here,” she suggested. “Maybe he wants to hide it from himself.”
“It’s like, his whole past.” Cassie opened the second box and found it to be mostly empty. Inside were the kind of keepsakes a kid might collect: a rock, some old coins, the barbed teeth of an animal. “This stuff must have been important to him at some point. I wonder what changed.”
“Nothing,” Finn said. “He wouldn’t have hidden it if he didn’t care about it.” Experimentally, Finn threw the chakram up a few inches and caught it.
“Stop that,” Cassie said. “You’re going to cut your hand off.”
“This thing is easier to use than you would think,” Finn said. Grabbing it with both hands she spun it lightly. Cassie threw herself to the floor. The chakram twirled upwards and then fell neatly into Finn’s hand again. “See? Nothing to worry about.” She touched the edge of one of the blades to test its sharpness. The cut on her thumb was so clean that it took a few seconds to start bleeding. “This thing is awesome.”
“You’re not taking it,” Cassie said. She put the boxes back into the secret compartment and stood up. “Matt hid it for a reason.”
“Yeah, but he could still be glad to see it. After all, he may never come back here. He might be want to have this or a picture or two when this is all over. Besides, what if this chakram is my weapon?”
“My weapon,” Finn repeated. “Remember, Grandmother said that I would fight fiercely with my true weapon. I know it sounds crazy, but maybe this is it.”
“And what if Matt doesn’t let you have it?” Cassie asked.
“I’m about to save his life, I’m sure he can let go of one chakram,” Finn said.
“Yeah well—“ Cassie never got to finish her thought. A scream echoed through the castle, closely followed by the rumble of walls smashing.
“That’s our cue,” Finn said. She slammed the wall back into place and Cassie grabbed a handful of maps before the two of them ran back to the hallway. The screams were louder out here. Alastair, in all his glory, must be better than a bull in a china shop. The plan had been for the Vaeor to burst into the mess hall and for Piper to incite a ruckus, making sure the guards scheduled for the next shift in the dungeons were well occupied. They ran into her in the intersection, her cheeks flushed with pride.
“It’s a disaster in there,” Piper said gleefully. “All hands are running to the mess as we speak. Are you two,” Piper finally noticed the weapon in Finn’s hand. “Is that Matt’s Kovano chakram?”
“Is it absolutely horrible that I took it?” Finn asked guiltily.
Piper opened her mouth to say something, then closed it, a thoughtful look on her face. “Actually…” she started, but she shook her head. “Bring it. We need to move.”
They ran down the next corridor, stopping at a carved stone archway. Cassie could already feel the cold coming up those steps. She folded the crinkled maps she still held with shaking hands, stuffing them into the pocket of her jacket. Piper asked Finn, “Are you ready?”
“As I’ll ever be. Hold this,” she handed the chakram to Piper, “it’ll be too suspicious.” Piper took it from her and Finn raced down the steps.
When she disappeared from sight, Piper leaned into the stairwell and screamed at the top of her lungs. The plan was to lure the guards away by saying they were needed for the big emergency. Finn, disguised as a grunt, would be left to watch the cells while the “experienced” guards rushed off. Cassie and Piper were to make sure the soldiers left before joining Finn.
Sure enough, hurried footsteps echoed up the stairs. Cassie did her best to look scared. She and Piper went a few feet down the hall and then turned, trying to look as if they were running away when the guards bumped into them. “What’s going on?” one of the guards demanded of them.
Piper stood tall, thrusting her chest out just a little to display her Rider insignia. “Get to the mess immediately!” she ordered. “There’s been a problem at the breeding grounds; an unclaimed Vaeor is loose in the Castle. All hands needed until Creed and the rest of us can get down there.”
Both guards crossed their arms in an x over their chests in a quick salute and then ran off in the opposite direction. Piper shook her head. “I know I already staked my life on it, but I never thought Finn’s plan would go off so well.”
“That’s Finn for you,” Cassie said. “If there’s one thing she knows, it’s people. Come on.”
The two girls raced down the stairs. Finn stood in the guard station, picking through a cabinet. “What are you doing?” Cassie asked.
Finn turned around, pulling out Matt’s longsword. “Looking for this,” she said, grinning. “Here, I’ll trade you.” She handed the sword to Piper and took back the chakram.
“Thanks,” Piper said, tying the thing to her belt. “I hope they didn’t get anything else important off him.”
“Do you know which way?” Cassie asked. There were two different rows of cells heading into the darkness ahead of them.
Piper considered for a moment. “I almost hope I’m wrong, but he’ll be in one of the interrogation cells. This way.”
Piper conjured a ball of light in her palm so that they could find their way. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Dark stains dotted the stone floors of the cells, and the walls were covered in scratches and scorch marks. Some of the cells had chains bolted to the wall or ceiling, and a couple had steel tables that were either very rusted or had seen unspeakable things. They found Matt in a cell at the very end of the hallway.
The only thing keeping him from lying on the floor was the set of chains that lifted his arms above his head. It looked like they’d been lowered so that he could at least kneel on the floor, but his head flopped forward and he was still mostly hanging by his wrists. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, so Cassie could see every cut, burn, and sore across his back. She ran forward, lifting his head carefully. “Matt?” she said in a choked voice.
He was breathing, if shakily, but it was a long moment before his eyes flickered open. He squinted against the light of Piper’s lamp. “C-Cassie?” he rasped in a weak voice. “What” he swallowed “what are you doing here?”
“We’re here to break you out,” Piper said. She knelt beside him and examined the cuffs at his wrists. “We don’t have a lot of time.” She tossed her ball of light up and it hung obediently above her head. Piper laid her hand on the cuff and it suddenly glowed a deep violet. A few seconds and it snapped open. Matt collapsed as his arm fell. Cassie caught him, but he cried out in pain as her arm pressed against the wounds on his chest.
“Sorry,” Cassie said. “We’ll have you out of here soon.” While Piper worked on the second cuff, Cassie turned to Finn. “Do you think they’re still distracted?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I’m going to go back to the guard station and pretend to guard it. If they do come back, I’ll give you some kind of signal.”
Cassie nodded and Finn hurried off at a run. Piper finished with the second cuff and this time she helped Cassie to prop Matt up. “Come on Mattie,” she said gently. “We gotta go.”
“I don’t…I don’t know if I can walk,” Matt said. Still, with both of them supporting his shaking arms, he was able to push himself to his feet. Each girl slung one of his arms over their shoulder and together they half carried him out into the corridor. “I can’t believe you guys came. You know that—”
“It’s insane,” Piper finished. “I know. But you forgot that I can’t pick up where you left off if I don’t have your power. Besides, I’m not going to stand by while they do this to you.”
As they slowly progressed down the hall, Matt seemed to get more feeling into his legs, taking more of his weight off of Cassie and Piper. “I thought…I thought that I could get information out of them about what my father is up to.”
Cassie laughed sadly. “Did you?”
Matt smiled. “Actually, yeah. Except by that point I didn’t think it was going to do any good.”
“Because they were going to kill you,” Piper said. “You should never have gotten yourself arrested. I could have—”
“You’d have gotten yourself killed too,” Matt cut her off. “Besides…out of all of this I got an idea. Piper, you may not be able to forge the magic of the Rite, but you and Alastair can find the Sentinels.”
“We…oh my god you’re right.”
“How can that be?” Cassie asked.
“Vaeor can sense energies like a scent on the air,” Piper explained. “Especially opposing energies. The Sentinels would be the biggest opposition to Dacruum energy there is. If we searched, we’d have a better chance of finding them then you would alone.”
They reached the guard station. Finn bounced forward anxiously. “Do you think he can get upstairs?” she asked the girls.
“It’ll be slow going,” Cassie said. “Are the guards coming back?”
“As far as I can tell, no,” Finn said. “But the sounds up there are winding down.”
“If the other Riders have made it to the mess, they may have been able to subdue Alastair,” Piper said. “Or at least chase him off. Once he’s gone the guards will come right back to their duty.”
“You told him to stay until he got the signal, right?” Cassie said.
“Yes, but not if it meant his life,” Piper said. “Don’t forget who we’re dealing with.”
“Then let’s hurry.”
With Finn to help from behind, they managed to climb the stairs a little faster. All four were deathly silent, straining to hear any sound from above. It was the most agonizing few minutes Cassie had ever lived. But when they finally emerged into the main corridor it was blessedly empty.
“Where are we going?” Matt asked.
They turned to the right and Cassie and Piper tried to pick up their pace. “That courtyard outside the Aerie where we always hold game day. It’s the closest door outside.”
“Are you sure Alastair can carry all four of us?” Cassie asked.
“He’s taken more than that before,” Piper said. “We’ll be ok.”
“We’re not ok,” Finn said, stopping in her tracks. She’d heard them before they even spotted their group. Two new guards, undoubtedly the next shift, were heading to the dungeon. Finn and Cassie might be able to pass as soldiers, but the guards couldn’t mistake the prisoner limping away.
“Stop,” one of the guards said as they both started to run.
Cassie tried to turn around, but Matt faltered as soon as she shifted her weight from under him. “What do we do?” she said.
“I…” Finn held the chakram out to her side, just far enough that she could turn it from side to side. The guards were closing fast. “We can’t let anyone else know we’re here,” she said, her voice wooden.
“Finn…” Cassie started, but she was too late. Stepping into it like major league pitcher, Finn brought her arm around in a broad arc, spinning the edge of the chakram ring against the edge of her hand. It made a singing sound as it flew, straight and sure into the chest of one of the guards. He slammed backwards in a messy heap. His partner froze in his tracks, staring down at the pool of blood forming at his feet.
“Finn,” Piper said, trying to get her attention. Finn was immobile, staring at her handiwork.
The second guard was regaining his senses. The look he gave Finn as he unsheathed the sword at his hip was utterly terrifying.
“Finn!” Piper tried again. Still Finn didn’t move. “Take him.” Piper carefully pushed Matt toward Cassie. She floundered a bit, but to Matt’s credit he managed to take on more of his own weight.
Piper rushed forward just as the guard started to do the same. He was screaming curses at Finn, raising his sword when Piper threw herself between them. She held out her arm like a crossing guard stopping traffic, but somehow the guard halted as if he’d been yanked backwards by a string. He opened his mouth, producing only a choking sound. His sword dropped uselessly to the floor. Both hands flew to his throat, clawing at it as if invisible hands were wrapped around it. Looking at Piper, perhaps they were. Her eyes were dark and narrowed. Slowly, she closed her hand into a fist. The guard fell to his knees. Blood poured from his nose and mouth and soon even his eyes, like thick red tears. One last wet gasp and he fell to the floor dead.
Piper wasted no time. She spun around and grabbed Finn by the shoulders. “Are you ok?”
“I…I…” Finn’s eyes were wide, not even seeing Piper’s face in front of her.
Piper sighed, frustrated. She hurried back towards the guards, giving them each a firm kick to make sure they were dead. With the most horrible sound Cassie could never have imagined, Piper pulled the chakram from the man’s chest and hurried back to the others. “Take it,” she ordered, forcing the ring into Finn’s hand. Grabbing the other, she pulled Finn back down the corridor where she shouldered Matt’s other side again.
Cassie stared at Piper in awe and it wasn’t until she and Matt had gone a couple steps that Cassie remembered they were still on the run. Matt’s muscles seemed to be recovering quickly, but his strength wasn’t there to back them up. Cassie could see the veins in his neck standing out, and his eyes were flickering as he forced himself to remain conscious. Once they reached the end of the corridor, Finn had regained some of her senses. Enough at least that Piper didn’t have to drag her along. With Finn holding open the door, Cassie and Piper struggled to lead Matt through.
Piper whistled her call and in seconds Alastair was flapping down toward them. As he landed he looked at Piper, and Cassie could swear there was guilt in his eyes. Up and down the Vaeor’s sides there were fresh cuts, and a whole handful of feathers was missing from his neck, leaving burned skin exposed. “Thank you friend,” Piper said. “Let’s get out of here.”
All three of them helped Matt to climb onto Alastair just behind the wing joints. Piper sat behind him, supporting him, while Cassie and Finn hung on behind her. The sound of shouting and running footsteps drifted toward the courtyard just as Alastair gathered his haunches beneath him and launched them into the sky.
Matt was unconscious by the time they landed in the hills. The girls laid him on the ground.
“I’ll mask your escape,” Piper assured them. She untied Matt’s longsword from her belt and handed it to Finn. “This part’s my specialty. No one will be able to track you, not even the dogs.”
“What about you?” Cassie asked. “You can’t go back there.”
“No,” Piper agreed. “But somehow I feel…really good about that. Alastair and I are going to do something meaningful. I have some things to make up for. We’re going to find them, the Sentinels. I promise.”
Cassie threw her arms around Piper in a quick embrace. “Thank you.”
“Piper, I…” Finn started to say, but Piper shook her head.
“I know what it’s like, your first kill,” Piper said. “You handled yours better than I did mine. I’m sorry you had to do that.” She hugged Finn tight. “I’m very glad to have met you, Finnia Morgan.” Piper pulled away. “Oh, I almost forgot.” She hurried back to Alastair and reached up to the harness that looped around his neck. On the front was a small decal that must be the symbol of the Riders. Piper dug a fingernail into the edge of the brass and pried open a hidden locket. She brought what was inside over to the others. “Matt gave me this before he left. If what you said about Mercutio and the Rite is true, then I think it belongs to you.”
When Piper handed the item to her, Cassie could feel her heart turn to stone. Here it was, in her hand at last: the gemstone from her vision. Now that she saw it in person, she realized it was a pendant, with a gold chain hanging from the top. The stone itself was a moonstone: its cloudy surface reflecting the whole spectrum of light as if hinting at something hidden deep inside it, a beating heart of color and life. “I can’t believe it,” Cassie breathed. She looked up at Piper. “This is it. Thank you.”
Piper gave them both as bright a smile as she could manage. “Ok, time to go,” she said. “I’ll see you again as soon as I can.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Cassie said. She pulled the pendant over her head where it clacked against her mother’s protection amulet. Cassie then knelt beside Matt and gripped his shoulder. Finn took her other hand. Her voice shaky, Cassie sang the transport song as quickly as she could. Her last image before the spell whipped them away was of Piper standing beside Alastair, a perfect mixture of happiness and fear clouding her face.