The Ultimate Power
They appeared on a hillside that Kenneth had given Cassie the coordinates to before he left. It was morning on Renalia, and Cassie had never in her life been so happy to see a blue sky above her. In the distance the sun was just hitting the spires of the Palace, and Marupren glimmered cheerfully as its people started their day. Cassie looked down at Matt. He was still bleeding in places, and some of his muscles twitched every so often, but at least he was breathing.
Finn crouched down, dropping Matt’s sword and her bloodstained chakram to the ground and leaning on her knees. “Where are we?” She asked.
“Kenneth said this was the closest we could get to the city without alerting the Royal Guard,” Cassie said. She fished in a pants pocket and pulled out a small white stone. It looked a little like quarts, but with a clearer quality. When she touched it with magic, the stone lit up with a warm indigo light. After a moment, a blue haze rose up around the stone, Kenneth’s face wavering in it like a reflection on water.
“Cassie,” Kenneth sounded relieved. “You’re early. Is everything all right?”
“Yes and no,” Cassie said. “The plan went great, but…” she glanced down at Matt, “how soon can you get here with a healer?”
“Oh gods, are you ok?”
“We’re fine,” Cassie said quickly. “Everyone’s alive. Just…bring someone as soon as you can, ok?”
“Of course,” Kenneth said. His face disappeared and the light shrunk back into the crystal. Cassie pulled her magic from it and stuffed it back into her pocket. She looked over at Finn, who was still crouched, head down, her breathing unsteady.
“Are you ok?” Cassie asked her.
Finn lifted her head, as if surprised to see Cassie there. “I’m fine,” she said unconvincingly. With an ungraceful thump, Finn sat down, one leg stretched out in front of her. “Just fine.”
“You did the right thing back there,” Cassie said. “If you hadn’t—“
Finn said. “Just…don’t. I know it was the only option. That’s why I did it.
It’s just…I thought we had more time before it started. I thought I could keep
our hands clean for just a little longer.” She smiled half-heartedly. “Best
laid plans, huh?”
“Yeah,” Cassie said. She looked down at Matt’s sleeping form. With all her insistence that war was inevitable, all that talk about bloodshed and destiny, somehow she had still believed too. That if everything went right, no one would have to die. Finn’s plans always worked didn’t they? And heroes never killed, not even in the end. But collectively, their body count was already starting to add up. Necessary, maybe. Faceless soldiers only. But still—it had begun.
Kenneth appeared not long after, stumbling out of thin air and pulling behind him a harried looking woman in a white robe. The woman brushed herself off agitatedly. “Sure, I’ll come with you Lord Kenneth,” she said sarcastically.
“Sorry Hattie but—”
“Your Majesty,” Hattie cut Kenneth off. She gave Cassie a small bow. “Are you all right?”
“It’s not me,” Cassie said. She waved Hattie over. The woman knelt down beside Cassie, looking Matt up and down. “I know it’s an odd request,” Cassie said, “but he needs your help.”
“A Dacruum?” Hattie looked questioningly at Cassie, but the young queen’s expression was unwavering. Hattie looked back at Matt and sighed. “I’ll try. But he may reject my magic.”
“Just do what you can. Please.” Cassie said.
Hattie nodded and took Cassie’s place next to Matt’s head. She brushed a hand over his forehead, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Her other hand moved down to his heart, where she lightly rested her palm on his skin. Only barely visible, Cassie saw a spark of light pass from Hattie to Matt like electricity. His face flushed and slowly his breathing eased. There was an uncomfortable cracking sound as Matt’s ribs reset, the bruises along his side yellowing and fading in the blink of an eye.
Cassie stood, stepping back a little to give Hattie room to work. Kenneth hurried to her side. “What happened?” he whispered furiously.
“They tortured him,” Cassie said, hugging her arms around her. “Maybe they thought he had information about us. Or maybe they just wanted to punish him.”
“Not that,” Kenneth said. Finn came up to them, and Cassie saw Kenneth’s eyes flit from her to the bloody chakram on the ground. “Are you two ok?” he asked.
“Everything went according to plan,” Finn said. “The important thing is that we made it through.”
“Do you think you were followed?” Kenneth asked.
“Piper said that she’d cover our tracks for us,” Cassie said. “If she can keep our trail hidden, it’ll be a while before they find us again.”
“Except now they’ll be looking harder than ever,” Kenneth said. “Breaking the prince out…it’s a declaration of war.”
“Well then the Consulate should be happy,” Cassie said. “Did you clear up everything with them?”
“For the most part.” Kenneth ran his fingers through his hair nervously. “There’s just a—”
“Your Majesty.” Hattie took her hands off Matt and stood. “I did everything I could. His internal injuries weren’t that bad, but I did meet with some resistance. If he rests for a while, it should clear up on its own.”
“Thank you so much,” Cassie said. She knelt down beside Matt and hesitantly put a hand on his shoulder. “Matt?”
After a few moments, his eyes finally opened. He took a deep, easy breath. “Cassie?”
Cassie sighed with relief and smiled. “How do you feel?”
“A little sore, but it’s a huge improvement.” He pushed himself up on his elbows. “What happened?”
“You just had a healing, that’s what,” Hattie crouched down again and pushed Matt gently but firmly onto his back. “You must rest if you want it to stick.” To Cassie she said, “There’s a tonic I could give him that might help the process. And some food wouldn’t hurt either.”
“Ok,” Cassie said. “We’ll set up a camp out here. We can bring food and supplies up from the palace.”
Hattie patted Cassie on the knee and stood. “I’ll inform your steward,” she said. “I just need to grab my own supplies and I’ll be back in a snap.” She pulled a miniature transport stone out of her pocket.
Before she could activate it, Cassie said, “When you tell Morris, don’t mention the Dacruum or anything. Just tell him I command it; he can’t argue with that.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.” With another bow, Hattie disappeared.
“Morris is going to find out sooner or later, you know,” Kenneth said.
“I know,” Cassie said. “I’d just rather it be later.”
With some effort, Matt pushed himself upright. “You’re this afraid of your own steward?”
“I would be too, if I were you,” Finn said, kneeling down across from Cassie. “How are we going to explain all this to the Consulate, anyway?”
“You saw them last, Kenneth.” Cassie looked up at him. “Do you think we can get away with the truth?”
He shrugged. “It’s gotten us this far. If Matthias can make a plea directly to the Consulate, and we try to piece together all these different prophecies…well they still probably won’t agree. But you are queen, and in a state of emergency you have full control of the Order.”
“I’m not going to act like some kind of tyrant,” Cassie said. “Then I’d be no better than Thanas. No offense,” she said to Matt.
“None taken,” he said. “But unfortunately, hair boy’s right. In war you don’t have time to sit down and talk things through. Your men should understand that. The second my father hears that I’m gone, he’s going to retaliate whether he finds us or not.”
Cassie hadn’t thought of that. “Do you think he’ll attack the Realm? They’re innocent people.”
“In his mind, no Craftling is innocent.”
“So you’re saying he could even send people here,” Finn said. Her voice was strange.
“I guess…” Matt said suspiciously, “but it’d be more likely he’d go somewhere without a barrier. What are you looking at?”
Finn’s eyes were trained on the sky somewhere behind them. Slowly she stood. “I’m not sure but I’d say it’s definitely trouble.”
Cassie surged to her feet. Black wings sliced back and forth hundreds of feet above them. As one of them turned on the thermals Cassie saw with dread the sleek body of a Vaeor against the sky. “Maybe it’s just Piper,” she said lamely. She pulled her wand from her waistband.
“Definitely not,” Finn said. A second Vaeor swerved out behind the first, and they began to angle down towards the hills. Finn walked over and picked up her chakram.
“How could they have followed us?” Cassie flicked open her wand, gripping it tight.
“Maybe Piper betrayed you,” Kenneth said.
“If that’s what she wanted, she could have done it a million times,” Cassie said. “She sacrificed a lot for us.”
“They must think they can attack the capital,” Matt said, trying to get to his feet. When he almost fell Cassie caught and steadied him. “Or maybe they’re delivering some gruesome message. Like a head.”
The Vaeor swooped closer. “They’ve spotted us,” Kenneth said. Cassie saw him reach automatically for the weapon that would have been at his back. He cursed silently. No doubt he’d come to meet them completely unarmed.
Delicate as starlings, the Vaeor landed on the hillside, their wings stirring the grass around them like a helicopter. “Well, well, well,” one of the Riders leaped off his mount, grinning. “What are the odds? Every Hunter in the Realm out looking for you and we just happen to land right on top of you.”
Slowly Matt walked behind the others to pick up his sword from where Finn had dropped it. Cassie stepped forward, trying to seem authoritative. “And why are you landing here? You can’t touch the city. Where do you think you’re going?”
“Nowhere,” said the Rider. “We’re just…dropping something off.” The second Rider came forward carrying a block of carved stone with both hands. Cassie didn’t recognize it—black rock, probably from the bowls of Alpha Daeori. At least it wasn’t a head. “When we couldn’t find you,” the first Rider said, “we thought your queen would like to know how much we appreciated your visit. But I’m so glad we can give it to you instead.”
The second Rider set the stone on the ground. “You ready?” he said, looking up at his partner.
Cassie took a couple steps back. “What are you doing?”
The riders didn’t answer. They both crouched down over the stone. One took a vial from his pocket and poured a few drops of what seemed to be blood onto it. The other began to chant, his hands shaking where he held them over the rock. As it started to glow, the air around it grew darker, the grass turning brown.
Kenneth started forward but the rising forces pushed him back. Cassie covered her eyes against the dust clouding the air. Suddenly the rock broke open, split like an egg. The Riders ran back to their mounts, swinging up and pushing off just ahead of the light that was ballooning out of the fissure. “Emperor Thanas says goodbye,” the first man yelled. And they were gone.
The split in the rock grew wider, the light spreading out across the hill. “What the hell is happening?” Finn shouted.
“It’s a portal,” Matt said. “They’re sending something to us.”
“To attack the city?” Kenneth drew closer to the others. “Nothing could do that.”
A dark shape began to take form above the cracked stone, turning in the light. “You’d be surprised,” Cassie said. Suddenly she wished it had been a head after all.
The darkness grew bigger and bigger until it took up almost the whole hill. As soon as it was fully through the portal, the blob began to take shape. And the shape it took rattled Cassie down to her very bones. She had seen this creature before in storybooks and, unfortunately, in her vision. The sight of it swallowing ten men at once was fresh in her mind now.
The creature was about the size of some of the smaller dragons, fifty or so feet long and ten to fifteen feet high. It boasted six legs, kicking at the air as it emerged, each equipped with a hook of bone on the back of the joint just as sharp as any of its claws. While its legs and stomach were that of a giant dog, its back was armored from nose to tail with an insect-like carapace. It had tiny ears and beady eyes, but a huge muzzle full of teeth. Around its mouth, sprouting like whiskers, were a batch of antennae, sharp as razors and constantly in motion. Its head was covered in a ragged mane of fur and curving up over its back was the tail of a scorpion, barb slick with poison. When finally the monster was fully reformed, it dropped to the ground with a tremor that shook the entire countryside.
The thing looked disoriented. Its tail waved back and forth agitatedly and it picked up each of its paws, flexing them as if to make sure they were working. A rumbling growl was forming in its throat, but it didn’t seem to have noticed the four of them yet.
“What the hell is that?” Finn whispered to the others.
“A manticore,” Cassie answered instantly.
“Manticore?” Kenneth repeated. “Like the ancient mythical beast?”
“Like the demons of the Ultimate Power.” Numbly Cassie hefted her staff. Finally she would get to use it, though she doubted it would do her any good now.
Matt drew his sword and dropped the scabbard to the ground. The sword itself was strangely shaped—long and curved with a hook-like point—and now Cassie saw why. Matt unclasped the grip and literally pulled the sword apart. The duelblades were thin and deadly, perfectly balanced against his hand. Matt tossed one to Kenneth, who caught it on instinct. “We can’t let it reach the city,” Matt said in answer to Kenneth’s questioning look.
“And how are we supposed to do that?” Finn turned her chakram anxiously from side to side.
“It may be divine, but it’s not immortal. I saw it in my vision. I think—” was all Cassie could get out.
The manticore had its bearings at last, and the first thing it did was charge forward at the nearest threat, letting loose an earth-shattering roar. All four of them dove out of the way just in time, dashing across the hillside in different directions. When it missed them, the manticore spun, its giant paws leaving gouges in the hilltop.
Cassie gripped her staff, counting the sigils that Mercutio had left there. In her vision she had seen the manticores only briefly, but she remembered that they disappeared into a cloud of fire. Whether or not it worked was anyone’s guess, but it was worth a try. “Distract it!” Cassie called to the others. “I have an idea.” Luckily, there was a decent enough breeze that day, the slowly warming air of a summer morning. Cassie pulled a draft toward her, the air curling into a thin stream. She let it spin, a small whirlwind filling itself with a layer of dust that the air churned happily. Carefully, Cassie lifted her staff and let loose a surge of power into one of the sigils. Energy crackled up the airstream, turning the dirt hard and chasing along it like a candlewick. Experimentally, Cassie flicked her staff and the air followed her movements, feeding the fire into a long whip.
While Cassie worked her magic, Matt and Kenneth moved in toward the monster, swords raised, attempting to flank it. Unsure which boy to attack first, the manticore got low on its haunches, antennae waving furiously, its beady eyes flicking back and forth between them. Simultaneously, Matt and Kenneth raced forward, hoping to catch the beast off guard. Quick as a flash, the manticore spun sideways. Its tail smacked into Matt like a club, throwing him backwards and it raised a paw making to slice Kenneth in half with its claws.
Whistling as it flew, Finn’s chakram sliced across the manticore’s foot. Her aim imperfect, it did no more than scrape the bottom of its paw, but Kenneth was able to roll away unscathed.
Cassie dashed forward now, getting between the manticore and the others. Finn hurried behind her to collect her weapon from where it landed. “Are you all right?” she shouted to Matt a few feet away.
Groaning, he pulled himself to his feet. “I’ll live, I think. Look out!”
Finn ducked just as the manticore swung its tail forward, trying to stab Cassie before she could land a blow with her fire-whip. Quick on her feet, Cassie dodged, throwing more air into her whip and flicking it upwards. The manticore dodged as well, but the very tip of one of its antennae was sliced off.
The manticore reared. A few flames stuck to its face, sizzling on its skin before snuffing out. While its front feet pawed at its muzzle, they got a good look at its underside. Under the thick coat of fur they could see lines where it was coated with more armor-like hide and lines like faults where a daring blade might pierce. As it landed back on all six legs, shaking the ground, the four of them hurried forward, knowing what they had to do.
Cassie, with nothing else to burn, activated the spell again and threw the energy right at the manticore. Across its chest and legs patches of skin caught fire, enraging the beast still more.
Finn ducked to the side, doing her best to stay in the manticore’s blind spot. As the animal moved around, there was no space to duck underneath it. Matt ran forward. “Go as soon as it moves!” he called to Finn, and before she could stop him, he sliced straight across the manticore’s middle leg. The leg flinched forward and there was indeed a gap through which Finn might slip, if she could keep the manticore from falling onto her. But without even turning to glance at what had injured it, the manticore swept its tail down and around, spearing Matt straight through with its barb.
Resisting the urge to run to Matt, Finn shouted, “Kenneth!” He was on the other side, attempting to harry the monster just enough to keep it from focusing its full attention on Cassie. He turned at Finn’s shout just in time to see her swing her chakram in a mighty arc. The cut that Matt had made in its leg burst open under the sharp blades of the chakram, and the exposed bone crumpled easily when Finn slammed her body into it. The manticore was thrown off balance, its other paws starting to slide out from under it. As it lurched forward it threw out its head, and before Cassie could make her escape, thick teeth were embedded in her shoulder. She bit her lip hard to keep from crying out, trying to stay focused despite the pain. With blood streaming down her chin she raised her staff. From the gem at its head a beam of light extended, to which Cassie added her winds. After she hacked off a few more antennae and lit the manticore’s mane on fire, it released her and she stumbled backwards.
Kenneth, halfway to her rescue, ducked under a flailing paw. Assured Cassie was still on her feet, he dove again to the manticore’s side, looking for his opening. There would only be one chance.
Finn didn’t even see what happened to Cassie. As soon as the beast’s leg buckled, she’d run back to Matt’s side. The manticore pulled its tail free from Matt’s body with a squelch, swinging it away to defend its other flank. On a sudden whim, Finn leaped up and followed the tail around the manticore’s rump, throwing out her arm holding the chakram so that it scratched along the creature’s side, trying to keep it from turning the barb on Kenneth. The ploy worked. The manticore, roaring back over its shoulder aimed right for her.
“Finn!” Cassie shouted. But she could only stumble forward a couple of steps before the tail struck. It was everything Finn could do to keep on her feet, but somehow she managed to catch the stinger against the crosspiece of her chakram. Only the tip grazed her arm—barely a scratch.
“Take this you piece of shit!” Finn screamed. With every muscle in her body, Finn twisted the chakram, pushing to one side and turning it like a wheel, unrelenting as the blades met resistance. She had to bend almost all the way to the side, but as she rolled the end of the tail snapped off and went flying. With a satisfying thump, Finn landed on the ground while the manticore howled, waving its stump of a tail uselessly through the air.
Cassie knew they had their opportunity. Every last bit of power she could muster was channeled into Aingath. Like a bolt of lightening, the energy shot forward and caught the manticore full on in the face. It couldn’t rear this time, but it surged backwards one paw lifting just enough for Kenneth to fling Matt’s thin sword through. The blade spun with a high-pitched whistle, and they all held their breath as they watched it soar toward the manticore’s underbelly. Its tip hit, just where the beast’s exoskeleton cracked. But it wasn’t enough to even injure it.
Until Kenneth made a small shield, just under the sword, and hammered it like a nail into the weak spot.
The manticore wailed, its scream bouncing back off the city miles away. But it didn’t fall. With its face burnt and its energy diminished, the manticore could only blindly strike out with its paw, but still Cassie caught its talons on her arm, and would have lost the whole limb if it hadn’t been for her staff. She blocked the worst of the blow, and when the manticore met with the still-hot beam of Aingath it pulled its paw back with a screech.
Cassie buckled to the ground. Blood was starting to soak through her thick jacket from the bite on her shoulder. “Why didn’t that kill it?” she shouted.
“You have…you have to get…its heart.” From where he lay, nearly forgotten, Matt lifted an arm. “Ahkchos deiios ihad.” The incantation was barely more than a croak, and as soon he said it, he collapsed. But the manticore suddenly started to cough and hack, as if it had a hairball. Cassie scrambled out of the way as the monster suddenly let loose a stream of blood from its mouth. Finally, finally it fell, legs splayed and teeth still gnashing. From where she stood Cassie could feel the body getting warmer and warmer as Matt’s magic worked, and suddenly the sword burst out of the carapace as if it had only just been thrown. It was soaked in the beast’s sticky innards—black, brackish red. And when the sword skidded to a stop in the grass, the manticore let out its final roar, wet with blood and rife with malice. And then the monster was still.
It was a few moments before anyone moved. Cassie was the first. She shrunk her staff back into a wand and tucked it into her belt. With slow, unsteady steps, she walked over to where Matt lay. The scene was too familiar: a black-haired boy lying in a pool of his own blood.
“What happened?” Cassie asked. Her voice was raspy and unsteady, as if she had forgotten how to use it.
“He was…stabbed.” Finn came to stand over him as well. Though uninjured, her forehead was beaded with sweat, and she looked pale. “And I think,” she took an unsteady breath, “I think poisoned. I couldn’t…he was trying…” she trailed off.
Kenneth joined them. “Cassie, you’re bleeding.” He said.
“So are you,” she pointed out. Kenneth’s back and arms had taken a few hits, though nothing as gory as Cassie’s shoulder. Still, she couldn’t feel it. Couldn’t even feel the blood running down her side.
“Finn, are you…?” Kenneth asked.
Finn shook her head. She seemed to be having trouble breathing. “A few scrapes. Maybe a little poison. Matt…protected me...from the worst.”
Kenneth looked from one girl to the other. After a moment, he nodded. “Ok then,” was all he said. Kenneth walked forward and knelt beside Matt. He pressed his fingers to Matt’s neck and Cassie could swear it was a sigh of relief she saw as Kenneth realized his enemy was still alive. The other duelblade wasn’t far away. Kenneth fetched it and sat beside Matt. Awkwardly, trying to guide the tip with accuracy, he began to scratch a symbol onto Matt’s shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Cassie let her legs give out and knelt beside the two of them.
Kenneth didn’t answer her, didn’t even look up until the sigil was finished. With fresh blood streaming from the cuts, it was hard to tell what he had drawn. Laying the blade on the ground, Kenneth picked up Matt’s hand and reached out his other to the girls. “Join hands,” he commanded.
Hesitantly, Finn crouched and took Kenneth’s and Cassie’s hands. She and Cassie shared an uncertain look, but Cassie firmly gripped Matt’s hand as well. It was growing cold. “What are you doing?” she asked Kenneth again.
“Cassie,” Kenneth said, “sing the song to transport us to the throne room. It’ll work now.”
“But…” Cassie said.
“It’ll work,” Kenneth repeated firmly. “As long as you do it, he can pass through the barrier. I made sure of it.”
Cassie met Kenneth’s eyes and they were black. She swallowed thickly and began the song. The words now were the same as they had been that night in Gran’s front yard. Back when magic was still just a fairy tale and Cassie had been no more than a scared little girl. She sang with every last bit of power she had, gripping Matt’s limp hand so tightly. As she hit the last note, Cassie felt the familiar tug of the transportation magic and the four of them disappeared.
It seemed the whole court was gathered in the Throne Room. Morris, Farand, a few counselors, and Hattie the healer stood in a small group at the center, conversing in hushed voices when the queen and her companions suddenly appeared. As one, the crowd rushed forward, all talking at once. No doubt the whole city had been in a panic since the first cries of the manticore sounded over the hills. While Finn weakly ushered Hattie forward to tend to Matt and Kenneth crumpled to the floor in exhaustion, Cassie stood and faced her people.
They were scared, confused and unsure. Farand couldn’t meet her eyes, and the councilors for once were silent. Morris walked up and bowed deeply, as if that could say all that needed to be said. Cassie didn’t blame them for hiding. Maybe now more than ever was the time for people to hide, to huddle with their loved ones and pray for deliverance. But as Cassie looked at the people standing around her, her people, and the friends who had bled beside her today sitting beaten and broken on the floor, she knew that she could never hide again. Not from her duty, not from her fate.
“It’s here,” she said to them, her voice hollow but strong. “The Ultimate Power is here.”