The Writing on the Wall
Piper Llewellyn drew the string back to her ear, the bow stretching perfectly against her hand. It was a dance, to its own sweet rhythm. She took one step back with her right foot, into shooting position. Lifted her arms to center the arrowhead at the target. The wind was low in the training yard, and hardly a cloud in the sky. She turned the bow just so and loosed. Thwack. Like music, the arrow vibrated cleanly right in the center of the target.
“Nice shot,” said a voice behind her.
Piper whirled. Standing in the archway was a young man in his early twenties, broad-shouldered with a strong stance. His brown face was narrow, a roguish nose and expressive brows framing his big eyes. They looked blue today against the dark blue of his jacket. His black hair was as messy as ever, but his usual smile was missing. Piper looked down at his clothes. He was dressed for travelling in black cargo pants and a thick protective shirt. A heavy duffel bag was slung over his shoulder. “What are you doing here, Matt?” Piper said.
He shrugged. “They told me you’d be here. I need to talk to you.”
“Of course, anything.” Piper wiped the sweat from her brow and stood her bow on end to unstring it.
“Can we talk somewhere private?”
“More private than this?” she said, waving a hand at the empty yard.
“Yes.” Something in Matt’s tone made Piper look up. He sounded almost scared. In all her life she’d never heard him sound that way. “Somewhere safe,” he said.
“Ok, sure.” She walked up to him, curling the bowstring in her hands. “We can go up to the Roost. The Vaeor magic cancels out everything, so no one will hear us.”
Matt waited patiently for Piper to stow her gear and then followed her into the Aerie, one of three Triumvir towers that looked down on the city. They rode the lift in silence to the top floor, then walked up two more flights of stairs to the Roost. It was a giant circular room with no walls, the ceiling above supported by a ring of arches. Twenty-five stalls filled the area, each packed with straw and feathers and mud. Most of the mounts were gone, but a few rustled in their nests.
“Where’s Alastair?” Matt asked.
“Out hunting,” Piper said. “We won’t have drills for another couple hours.” She led Matt into Alastair’s stall. The smell here was comforting. It didn’t stink like the other nests. Piper hadn’t noticed it at first, but it grew on you. The smell of her mount. Her partner. Piper had learned to trust that scent over anything. “You can talk freely here,” she told Matt. She stepped inside the ring of the nest Alastair had made. Matt studied it. The debris and droppings made a perfect circle, and the scratch marks in the floor primed it for protection.
Matt whistled softly. “They really are amazing creatures.”
“The Vaeor are the real soldiers,” Piper said proudly. “I’m just tagging along for the ride. Speaking of,” she tugged on Matt’s duffel strap, “where are you going?”
He looked down at the bag. “I’m not sure yet.” When he met her eyes, Piper saw more of that fear. A weakness she’d never thought to see in her old friend. “Piper,” he said, “there’s something going on. Something big. I’m not sure what it is yet, but I mean to find out.”
“Have you asked your father about it, whatever it is?”
“It is my father,” Matt said. “The things he’s been involved in lately…it’s dangerous. More dangerous than he knows. He’s always been so righteous, so sure about the greater good. But this…this is about more than the war. It’s sacrifice and power like I’ve never seen before. He’s hurting our own people. The people we’re supposed to protect. You’re a Rider, you must have seen something.”
Piper looked away. Orders were orders—that was the life of a soldier. The Dacruum army was a well-oiled machine. Had there been more blood lately? The Dogs had been running, hunt after hunt. And the Reapers were busier than ever. Piper’s squadron, the Riders, had picked up plenty of fugitives lately. More than usual. More kept alive for “questioning” than she’d seen in a long time. “It might not mean anything,” she said hesitantly.
“So you have noticed,” Matt said. “I know that we’re at war, I know. But outside of that the Dacruum are meant to be peaceful—the soothing darkness. I can’t let my father bring ruin down on us.”
Piper hugged her arms against her. “What are you going to do?”
Matt reached into his pocket and pulled out a small drawstring bag. “When my grandfather died, he told me something. An old prophecy. If I’m right, then it might be coming true. And if that happens…it could mean the end.”
“The end? Like ‘the end’ the end?”
Matt shook his head. “I’m not sure yet. It might be nothing. But I overheard the Triumvirs meeting today. The Dogs discovered something on Earth while they were looking for the Craftling Tome. If I can follow that lead, figure out the truth, maybe I can stop the prophecy.”
“You’re not a hunter,” she pointed out.
“I’ll make due.” Matt reached out and grabbed Piper’s hands. He closed her fingers around the drawstring bag. “Keep this on you from now on, no matter what. And don’t let anyone know you have it.”
“What is it?” He didn’t stop her from pulling the string and tipping the contents into her palm. There were two things: a small amulet carved from pure obsidian into a sigil she didn’t recognize, and a pendant with a seven-sided moonstone set in gold. “What are these?”
“The pendant is a relic,” Matt said. “Something that needs to be kept safe. Maybe hide it here, in Alastair’s nest. But the amulet keep on you at all times. It’ll allow us to communicate in an emergency.” He held up his hand and Piper saw that on the stone of his signet ring he’d carved the same symbol. “Also, I can record into it. So whatever I find, if something happens to me, you can pick up where I left off.” He locked eyes with her. “Promise me. Promise that you’ll do it.”
“Of course. I promise.” Piper put the pieces back in the bag and tucked it into her breast pocket. “But Matt, none of this feels right. Can you at least tell me what was in the prophecy?”
“Not yet. But I will.” Matt stepped forward and hugged Piper. “I’ll contact you as soon as I know for sure,” he said into her ear.
She squeezed him back. “Be careful,” she whispered.
As she watched her oldest friend climb down from the Roost, Piper held the bag he’d given her tightly in her palm. He’d always been reckless. It was the only thing he had in common with his father. But Piper had once heard another prophecy about the end. About the one who would save them from it. “Stay safe, my prince,” Piper whispered, a quiet prayer. “Stay safe.”
halls of the Palace of Light was like navigating a labyrinth. Each corridor was
the same as the last, leading one into another with seemingly a thousand
identical doors and archways. Cassie walked as if she were in a trance, passing
faceless men and women without really seeing them, turning randomly without any
thought to where she was going. In her head she went over and over what Kenneth
and Morris had told her, trying to find some flaw in the logic. But the more
she thought about it, the more it made sense. All those fights Charlotte and
Gran had had about responsibility and doing what was right, about living in the
past and letting people down. Charlotte’s insistence that Gran was scheming over
Cassie. Now Cassie knew what her mother had been afraid of. Now she knew the
hints behind all of Gran’s stories. In her heart, Cassie could see that this
was the moment that had been coming her whole life. And she wasn’t ready for
Eventually, Cassie found her way into the fountain courtyard that they’d passed through earlier. It seemed to be the kind of central place where all the roads ended up. The space was at least as big as the throne room had been, with a covered walkway around the perimeter constructed of more white stone and columns. The cobbled paths curved in seemingly random patterns around the courtyard, leading from door to door, crisscrossing around the various flowerbeds. Cassie paused to admire a bush that was as tall as she was, filled with bright red blossoms. The flowers looked so delicate it seemed that if she touched one all the petals might crumble like spun sugar. Yet it swayed strongly with the wind and emitted a sweet scent that buoyed her spirits a little.
Cassie took a seat on the edge of the fountain. It was an elaborate structure that took up the entire center of the courtyard: A series of interconnecting bowls of all different sizes arranged around and inside each other. The three large ones at the base were linked like the Olympic rings, and the rest looked as if they’d been stacked haphazardly by someone in a hurry. Water shot up like a geyser from the smallest bowls at the top and cascaded down to pool in the largest. Cassie ran her finger along the water’s surface and found it pleasantly cool.
Now that she was sitting down, Cassie tried to pull herself together. She thought about the instant she had first touched the Book—her first brush with magic. She couldn’t deny the truth of those visions now, not after all she’d learned about the Book. The only question was what they meant. “Choose a path,” the Book had said. And yet the things that it showed her were only more things she didn’t understand, another Cassie that she could never see herself becoming. There was only one path opening up before her. Cassie would have to be Queen, she could see that, could feel it like a tightening in her chest. Where was the choice there? And how was she supposed to make sense of any of it?
As usual, the answer came in the strangest way possible.
A unicorn trotted into the courtyard. “Oh my god…” Cassie froze as if the slightest movement might scare it away. She sat and stared as the unicorn ambled up to the basin of the fountain and lowered its head to drink. Having grown up as a relatively normal little girl, Cassie knew what a unicorn was supposed to look like: a sparkly horse with a horn on its head. This creature did not exactly fit that description. First of all, it was smaller than a horse, more the size of a pony, although sleeker and lithe like a deer. Its coat was shaggy, a hazy silver-white that shimmered with every movement as if it might disappear on the wind. As it lifted its head she noticed that its face was long and a little horse-like, though something about how it moved its thin muzzle reminded her of a bird. Of course then there was its hooves and the horn.
The hooves were solid, one-toed like a horse’s, but the similarity to any living animal ended there. It looked like they had been blown out of glass, far too delicate to support the weight of anything heavier than a few pounds. And, just like the Star of Rhiath, which had burned in her hands, the hollow inside of the hoof was filled with dancing light. Except this light shone with every color imaginable, even some Cassie had no name for. And the horn, though made the same way, was even more incredible. A stunning spiral that, with both its inner lights and the way the spun crystal caught the sun, nearly blinded her.
The unicorn looked at her, one large blue eye regarding her with a world of intelligence behind it. Cassie stood very slowly. “Good boy,” she said, as soothing as possible. “Good unicorn. I’m not going to hurt you.” She took a cautious step toward it, lifting her hand towards its nose. The unicorn tilted its head, as if confused. “It’s ok,” she said. “It’s ok.”
The lights in the unicorn’s horn swirled, turning bright pink. “What language is this?” The words sounded echoic and thin, like a recording played inside a glass enclosure. But they were definitely resonating from the unicorn’s horn—in a low, halting voice that formed each syllable carefully, as if unfamiliar with them. When Cassie only stared in disbelief, the unicorn repeated himself, “What language are we speaking?”
“It…it’s English,” Cassie managed to say.
The unicorn sniffed at Cassie’s outstretched hand. “How strange. I thought I knew all the human languages.”
“Well it sounds like you can speak it pretty well, though I’m not exactly sure how.” She leaned forward and squinted at the horn trying to see something besides pink lights and glass.
“All things are possible with the right power,” it said, as if she should know this. “What power are you?” it asked. “I find it very odd that I would be approached by one speaking a new language and smelling of foreign lands on today of all days.”
Cassie ran a hand through her hair. “Trust me, that’s not the odd part. I’m not a power, just a person. What’s special about today?”
“You don’t know?” If a unicorn can look disappointed, this one managed to. “Who are you exactly? What kind of person?”
“If I knew that, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Cassie said. She sat back down on the rim of the fountain. “Then again, maybe I’m just dreaming. What I wouldn’t give to be naked in a classroom right now.” When the unicorn continued to stare, she said, “If you wanna know my name, it’s Cassie. That’s about all I’m sure of at the moment.”
The unicorn nickered softly, moving his lips as if literally chewing over this information. Through the vibration in his horn he said, “Names hold much more power than you seem to think. As long as you still know your name, I’m sure you can find your way again.”
“Find my way,” Cassie repeated. “Somehow I don’t think that’s the problem.” She shook her head. “But then again, here I am confessing to a unicorn, so it’s not like I have normal problems.”
The unicorn seemed miffed at this. He flicked his head back and snorted. “One should not doubt wisdom from an unlikely source,” he quoted. “My people are the wisest in the universe; you should be glad of my counsel.”
“Wouldn’t that make you wisdom from a likely source?” Cassie pointed out. “Meaning I should doubt you?”
The unicorn snorted. “Likely or not, the truth is the truth. Doubt won’t change that.”
Cassie laughed. “My mom used to say something like that. You wouldn’t happen to know her, would you? Everyone else seems to. Her name is Charlotte.”
The unicorn lowered his head and nibbled at the grass edging of the path. In him it was a thoughtful gesture. Using his horn he could also talk and eat at the same time. “I’m not sure I recognize the name, but now that you mention it, there is something about you that seems familiar. Back in the days when I spent more of my time here, I remember a girl with eyes like yours.” He lifted his head and looked at Cassie as if he were seeing that girl again, and something about the way his eyes glazed over made her think that the girl hadn’t exactly met a happy ending. The unicorn shook his head. “At least if she is your mother, that means she survived.”
Cassie didn’t know what to say to that. She kicked her foot against the path. The unicorn sniffed at her shoes. “You don’t seem lost to me,” he declared. “Merely conflicted.”
“Is that better?”
“Much,” the unicorn nodded emphatically, his forelock flopping between his eyes. “The lost can be lost forever, but confliction will end when you simply make a choice.”
“You think it’s that easy, do you?” Cassie leaned back, raising an eyebrow at the unicorn. “You don’t even know what I’m conflicted about.”
He sniffed. “The decision itself is never the hard part. You know what to choose; what’s difficult is committing to it.”
“Do you ever say anything that couldn’t be printed in a fortune cookie?” Cassie said.
“What’s a fortune cookie?” He looked so earnest that Cassie had to laugh. The unicorn seemed to take this as a good sign. “It’s not a coincidence that I met you here today miss Cassie. I believe we can help each other.” He lifted his head as high as his neck would allow, puffing out his chest and prancing a little on his glowing hooves. “Allow me to properly introduce myself. I am Anyu, the Wanderer.”
“Nice to meet you,” Cassie said. “What exactly do you think I can help you with?”
Anyu lowered his head again, shaking it so that his mane lay more comfortably across his neck. “Don’t worry, I ask no great favors of you. I’m looking for something. A sign.”
“A sign? What kind of sign?”
“I’ll know when I see it. It’s supposed to lead me to where I must be, but I’ve been wandering around for quite some time and seen nothing. I do not mind to wait so much, these things, they happen in their own time. Still, the opportunity of your presence seems promising. You may be the one to show me my sign.”
“You think just being with me will bring about this sign you’ve been waiting for?” Cassie asked. “Isn’t that a little…” she fished for the kindest word possible, “…half-baked?”
“Half-baked?” he repeated. The lights in his horn swirled faster as if his magic was having trouble translating this. Anyu shook his head. “I assume this phrase means something to you other than pastry, but I do not see the relevance. I follow faith. Today is the Eve of the Auspices. It is traditionally when paths open up. As such, turning down an opportunity like this would be quite foolish, don’t you think?”
Cassie shrugged. “Well, I don’t mind you hanging around, but I won’t guarantee you’ll find what you’re looking for doing it.”
Anyu shook out his mane again. Cassie was beginning to think it was a unicorn shrug. “If it were guaranteed,” he said, “it wouldn’t be interesting. Besides, whether or not I am destined to receive the sign now, I can’t ignore the fact that you need help.”
“Ah right,” Cassie said. “This help that you can provide. I thought you said all I needed to do was commit to a decision?”
“Are you saying you have?”
“No,” Cassie sighed, “but how exactly do you plan on helping me?” Here Anyu took a step closer. He extended his nose toward her and sniffed at her hair. Cassie noted that he did not have much of an animal scent. His coat gave off a sweet sort of musk, more like wildgrass and earth than a beast. His horn had an electric smell, like the glass formations made when lightening struck sand. With his big blue eyes, the unicorn examined her until Cassie was sure he could see into her mind. “Uh…any ideas?”
“You’re the heir.” As he looked at her, Cassie couldn’t tell if Anyu was surprised or not. He pawed the ground, producing an unexpectedly bright bell tone with his hoof against the stone. “You’re confused because you haven’t been given the information you need to face what’s in front of you. Others will try to make this decision for you. It seems the help I can provide is the chance to know more before they do. Though I must warn you, after learning what you have learned so far…”
“It’s not going to get any easier,” Cassie finished. She looked down at her hands in her lap. Her skin was chapped, red lines forming along her knuckles. They looked very, very small. Kenneth and Morris had told her a little about her family’s past and what she had to fight, but there was so much left to know. As Kenneth had pointed out, they couldn’t make up for the past seventeen years in one night. Seventeen years of lies and secrets. Cassie looked up into Anyu’s steady azure eyes. What was it Finn had said, about being through the looking glass? Well here was the white rabbit, ready to show her the way. “There’s no backing out now,” Cassie said, standing. “I can only move forward.”
The unicorn dipped his head solemnly. “All right then. Come with me.”
Cassie followed close by Anyu’s side as he led the way out of the palace, glass hooves pinging on the marble. He didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, so Cassie had no trouble keeping pace with him. The people took little notice of them, except a few who nodded in polite greeting at the unicorn as they passed. Cassie couldn’t help but marvel at their nonchalance. What other creatures wandered the halls of this place on a daily basis?
“Where exactly are you taking me?” Cassie asked when she felt they had been walking long enough.
“There is a place just outside the city where magic gathers,” Anyu said. “There a man may learn much about himself. More sometimes than he might like.”
Cassie shuddered at the notion. “I thought it wasn’t safe to leave the palace,” she said.
“The palace is fortified, but there is a barrier that surrounds both it and the city, even a ways into the mountains. Nothing can pierce it; we shall be safe within its borders.”
“Let me guess,” Cassie said, “this barrier is one of those enchantments set up by my ancestors.”
Anyu dipped his head in agreement. “Yes. It is the Blessing of Aurora. She was your several times great grandmother. Without it, all the major cities of our realm would fall.”
“Perfect,” Cassie muttered.
One more turn and they were in the entry hall. Compared to the Throne Room, it was almost simple. A single runner of midnight blue carpet flanked on either side by two rows of statues. Each statue had its own arched alcove, pointing up to the cathedral ceiling. Cassie paused at the first one she passed. “I know this one.” It was a statue of a man, standing square and sure, his face serious but his eyes kind. His hands rested before him on the pommel of a greatsword that in statue form was almost as tall as Cassie. On his stand a name was carved in more of that foreign writing. Cassie concentrated and read: Emir Brewell. She looked back up at the face that had smiled out at her from Gran’s family photo albums. “That’s my great-grandfather.”
Anyu looked up at the statue as well. “So it is,” he said. “This is the Hall of Heroes. The statues only go back a few thousand years, but much of your family is among them.”
Cassie looked down the hall toward the towering front doors. It seemed longer than it had at first glance. As they walked, Anyu pointed out other relatives of Cassie’s whose statues had been erected here. It may have been the sculptor, but they all looked so serious. So aware of her looking up at them, and disappointed with what they saw.
Anyu had to nicker to get her attention before she slammed into the doors. He gestured with his horn at the enormous handle. “If you wouldn’t mind.” The doors were enormous: two pieces of wood so large Cassie had to wonder where they’d found trees big enough. She had to shove with her shoulder just to move the door enough for them to pass in single file. She slid out onto the broad palace steps like slipping into a dream.
On the other side of the palace wall lay a city of climbing structures gleaming against the sky—exactly as it had been in her vision. It might have been like any other city on Earth if not for the material used in most of the buildings. They were glorious, not metal or stone but something that shimmered in the sun like a mirage, not wholly one color but somehow, as the light broke against it, every color. The city sprawled in all directions beyond the Palace gates, the circling grid of its streets forming a crystal-like lattice. “What city is this?” Cassie could barely get the words out.
Anyu clopped nonchalantly past her. “This is Marupren.” Poised over the first step, he looked over his shoulder, horn burning bright. “Your first visit, is it? The sight is a wonder. Just look behind you at the Palace.”
Anyu hopped down the broad staircase, agile as a billy goat. Cassie took her time, wary of tripping, and waited until she reached the bottom before she turned to look. Her first thought was that it was called the Palace of Light for a reason.
The inside had been made mostly of marble and stone, but something else coated the outside. Something unlike the material of the city, some clear, mirror-bright substance that reflected the sun like diamond and caused the Palace to virtually exude light. Beneath that, the Palace’s structure certainly looked as convoluted as it had felt inside. Multiple towers—some with twisting spirals, others with crenellation—rose at varying intervals. Cassie could see the changes in construction indicating additions, always growing outwards, away from the hills that provided a rear defense.
Still, as haphazard as the building itself might be, when taken as a whole it was certainly a sight to behold. The crystal coating added an otherwise lacking uniformity. There seemed to be an endless amount of decorative windows and archways, carvings and statuary, pulling the eye in every direction, constantly in motion and constantly changing. Something about it seemed almost fluid, as if its features were malleable, built out of the dreams and needs of the people that had grown here.
Cassie shook her head and turned back to Anyu where he waited patiently at the gate for her. He was looking up at the Palace with a wistful expression in his eyes. “Beautiful, isn’t it? You know, it is said that as long as a single Craftling lives to defend it, this Palace will never fall.” He turned his gaze on Cassie. “Of course, we hope it will never come to that.”
“Of…of course.” Cassie avoided Anyu’s gaze and walked ahead of him through the gates. It was only because her eyes were trained on the ground that she noticed the deep claw marks in the dirt outside the guard station and the odd amount of feathers scattered around. She swallowed thickly and quickened her pace.
“Something bothers you?” Anyu said, catching up to her.
Pausing in the middle of the road, Cassie looked at the city rising up to meet them. Every building seemed to have endless rows of windows. The views must be fantastic. She sighed disparagingly. “Anyu, why am I here?”
He stopped beside her and pawed the ground lazily, the lights in his hooves turning mostly gold. “Why am I here?” he repeated. “Where am I? What is the truth?’ People ask these things as if the answers are simple. As if all their problems can be solved by a few words of explanation. You are here because it is where you are meant to be. Where you are is the first and last step of your journey. The truth is that when the moment comes to make your choice you will not rely upon the wisdom you have gained but instead it will come down to faith.” He looked sternly into Cassie’s eyes and she suddenly felt ashamed, though she couldn’t say why. “There, I have answered your questions,” Anyu said. “Has this helped you in any way?”
Cassie looked away, back toward the Palace, trying to blink away the afterimage of Anyu’s bright eyes. “No, but there’s nothing else I can do. All I have are questions. I don’t know anything. When I first found out about all this I thought that maybe, somehow, it would be exciting and adventurous. But now all I have is a screwed up family tree and obligations that I don’t think I can fulfill. Why am I of all people the one meant for this? What journey can I possibly take that’s of my own choosing? All you give me are more questions, Anyu. If there are two paths before me, how do I even tell which is which?”
Anyu stepped closer. “What do you mean, ‘when you first found out about all this’?”
“Earlier today was the first time I knew that magic existed. Or maybe it was yesterday, I’m not quite clear on the time. But I touched the Book and…everything is different now.”
Anyu whistled through his nose. “No wonder you are conflicted. To think, the heir raised without magic. And you are the Keeper. That even I did not know.”
“Still, a lot of good that does me,” Cassie said. “It’s not exactly a fast read.”
“But don’t you see,” Anyu said brightly, “this will help a great deal in this task of ours.”
Cassie narrowed her eyebrows. “How, exactly?”
“When you touched the Book, did you have a vision?”
“Yes. How did you…”
“Because it is written,” Anyu said. “A Craftling that makes contact with the Aurcænos is tested, and if they are found worthy, they are granted a great boon.”
Cassie thought about the jolt of power that went through her when she first touched the Book. “Are the visions the test or the boon?” she asked.
Anyu gave another unicorn shrug. “No one is certain. The Keepers probably know but…well you will have to come to that knowledge yourself now.” He sounded genuinely sad. Cassie wondered if Anyu had known her grandmother at all. “However,” he continued, “all accounts say that each person was granted a powerful vision of possible future. A single decision and the reality each option could bring.”
Cassie saw again in her mind the clearing splitting into two. Choose a path the voice had said. “So you think if I analyze this vision, I’ll know what to do about being Queen?”
“You’ll know much more than you do now,” Anyu said. “But come, we shall talk on our way. It would be best to be back before dark, and we have a good walk ahead of us.” He turned away from the city and the palace, trotting into the flowerbed at the side of the road.
“I thought you said this place wasn’t far?” Cassie said, following. She waded hip deep into the flowers. The meadow went on for miles in either direction around the Palace wall. Blossoms of every size, shape, color and variety, giving off the brightest of scents. It was pleasant to wander through the wildgrass with flowers brushing playfully against her. Anyu seemed to shimmer—a unicorn in its natural element, Cassie supposed.
“It’s not so far, as distances are,” Anyu said. “We just follow that ridge northwest into the hills.” In the distance, where the Palace wall curved, Cassie could see the ridge he meant. It was closer than walking across a continent, sure, but definitely not nearby. Before Cassie could complain, Anyu said, “So tell me about this vision you had.”
Cassie hesitated. She reached out her hand to brush her palm over the flower heads. “I don’t really remember it,” she said slowly. “It all happened so fast, it’s kind of a blur.”
“Really?” He turned his head to look skeptically at her.
No, it wasn’t. She remembered every second, every detail of what she had seen, could replay it perfectly in her head. Cassie watched the ridge ahead of her, where the sky met the riot of the meadow. “There was a clearing in the woods,” she said, “with a giant silver tree. And there were people around me. Finn was there, that’s my friend, and a couple of guys about our age I didn’t know. One with dark hair and tattoos and…” Cassie stopped in her tracks.
Anyu looked back concerned. “What is it?”
“Kenneth.” Now Cassie realized why he had looked so familiar. “Kenneth was there.”
“Do you mean the young Lord Kenneth L’Athea?”
“I think so. I mean, a couple people called him that. He came with Morris to get me. Is he a really important person?”
“As far as the Craftlings are concerned?” Anyu paused to think. “It depends on whom you ask. His father is an Archduke and sits the council of Lords. He has the command of a sizable portion of the realm: the planet Athea and the three systems surrounding it. They say he’s second only to the queen in power. As his eldest son, Kenneth was the best candidate to replace him, when the time came. At least until a few years ago.”
“What happened a few years ago?” Cassie asked.
Anyu started walking again and Cassie followed. “What always happens to young men who are proud and idealistic,” the unicorn said. “He made a mistake. The people have not lost faith in Kenneth so much as his father has. Lord Geoffrey sent his son here to sit proxy for him on the council and learn about the task of ruling from the Queen herself. Not all the Lords approve of him, but the queen did and that’s something. Though now that she’s gone…”
Cassie thought back to Kenneth’s earnest face as he handed her the Star of Rhiath. “I guess he has more of a stake in this than I thought,” she said.
Anyu bobbed his head in agreement. “I’m not surprised he was involved with your recruitment. Although it is strange that you would see him in this aspect of your future. Was he in other parts of your vision?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Anyu nodded. “Go back to the beginning. I believe you and he were standing in the woods.”
Cassie recounted her vision, step by step for him. It was hard to say it out loud. Even here, safe in the sunshine, she couldn’t help but fear the things she had seen. Putting it all into words made it real, and she wasn’t ready for it to be real. But Cassie gave Anyu as best an outline as she could of the two paths before her, keeping only a few painful details to herself.
After she finished, Anyu was silent for a long time. They walked along, the flowers streaming by, leaving traces of pollen on Cassie’s clothes. Anyu’s hooves clopped dully on the soft earth. When Cassie looked at the horizon, she could see her vision again, all the blood and tears and soft beauty. The baby girl looked at her with golden eyes, watching. Waiting.
“What concerns me,” Anyu said at last, as if they had never stopped the conversation, “is that if you are correct in your descriptions, you have seen things that should not be in the future.”
“What do you mean?” Cassie asked.
“The universe now is not as it once was. In the beginning, when Creation was still raw and things undecided, there were creatures, abominations, that walked among us. It took hundreds of years and thousands of lives to rid ourselves of them. So to me, it is not concerning that you see war in our future. War has always been our future, and always will be. But if these beings return, we may not have a future.”
Cassie’s chest grew tight, as if a hand were slowly gripping her heart. “These abominations, those are the monsters right? They were only on one path. Can’t I just choose the other one?”
“You could,” Anyu said, “but there is something else there as well. Not a monster, but perhaps just as horrible.”
Cassie remembered the flying man, the one who laughed as he burned down a city. “So you’re saying that whatever my decision is, I will bring about some kind of abomination?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Anyu said. “It depends on how it is that they will appear, and what you might do to stop them.”
“What are the abominations, then?’ Cassie wanted to know. “The monsters are one, right?”
“Yes,” Anyu said. “What you call monsters, are beings from an alternate plane. They were powerful, powerful enough to rip through dimensions from their own universe and come here. They have no will but destruction, no need for anything but blood. When the universe was sealed, they could no longer cross over, but it took hundreds of years more to kill those that had remained.”
“And the second abomination? I don’t remember any horrible creatures in the second path.”
“Only one,” Anyu said. “The child.”
Cassie clutched her stomach reflexively. “My baby?”
“A child with wings born from a Craftling means only one thing: the Seraphim.”
“You mean like angels?”
Anyu nickered, amused. “No, not angels. I was told the name is a cruel joke. One of your relatives I believe, who had spent much of his life on Earth, came up with it. He said that on Earth the Seraphim were blessed creatures in the service of Earth’s god. And in the lore, many of them turned against the god and were smote into hellfire, twisted and fallen. It was a jape of some kind, to call these creatures that. For they are twisted and fallen as well.”
“Fallen angels?” Cassie said. “Like Lucifer and his demons. That is mean. But I didn’t think those beings could be born; they have to be created.”
“Some believe they are, in a way.” Anyu said. “A curse laid upon the mother, punishment from the gods, things like that. We never learned for sure what caused them to be, only that a few thousand years ago, there they were.”
“But what makes them an abomination?” Cassie said.
“The wings are the mark of their unnaturalness,” Anyu said. “Within, they are not part of any path or power, but their strength is unmatched by anything we know. Even your magic and that of the crown. They can do things, manipulate the world in ways no one else can. And many of them have used that power for destruction. Even for those who commit no evil, blood and chaos follow them wherever they go.”
“And I might give birth to one?” Cassie suddenly felt sick.
“Possibly,” Anyu said. “And to have one in the royal family would be truly disastrous. But that may be the lesser of two evils. There are some Seraphim left, somewhere in the universe, and we manage to get by. One nearly decimated a Dacruum planet a few years ago, and I hear the place is more or less back to normal. Still, if your vision is correct there will be a great deal of bloodshed in that direction. Monsters, at least, we can predict, whatever other sorrows await you on that road.”
“That’s comforting.” Cassie stopped walking, her sneakers dislodging a few clumps of dirt at the edge of the sloping ground. They had reached the ridge. The palace wall curved toward the right, high and impenetrable as always, but now they could see the full scope of the land around them. Near the palace, the hills nestled low and close, but they climbed gently upwards into the peaks of mountains in the distance. A river, fast and swollen, swept through the foothills until it reached the plains before the city, curving away in a broad stroke. Summer was in full swing—waving grasses and fields of heather, spindly trees and even more expanses of flowers. Everything seemed so vibrant, colors at their boldest in the afternoon sun.
“Tell me something Anyu,” Cassie said. “Is it even worth trying to protect people if in the end there’s just more evil?”
The unicorn stepped up beside her and whickered gently. “There is always evil in the world. You can’t abolish it. It will change into something new and new people will be born to oppose it. What really matters is how many people you protect. Which path is best for us all; which evil we can fight.”
Cassie sighed. “All this analyzing and I don’t think I understand anything any better. All those little details, the people, the ring, the amulet…if I could just figure out one, maybe I’d know what the other consequences will be. I don’t even know what the choice I’ll have to make is. Knowing the end just makes all the in-between so much harder.”
Anyu shrugged, looking up at her with one giant blue eye. “Maybe the vision is the test after all.”
Cassie looked down the ridge, trying to see where Anyu was leading her. “I better get one hell of a boon then.”
The walk along the ridge wasn’t more than a mile, but it was rough going. There was only a few feet of level ground before a steep incline. Once they made it to the hills, Anyu pointed out a cluster of rocks that he swore marked their destination, but they had to hike there. The hills were starting to get steep and closer together and there were no paths. Cassie tied her sweatshirt around her waist and resorted to grabbing at the earth with her hands to keep her balance. Anyu was nimble as ever, leaping upwards and looking back every few minutes, pausing to let Cassie catch up. The sweet scent of wildgrass was starting to give her a headache, and bugs had started mercilessly eating her.
Finally, they reached the cave. The ground around it leveled off, and there was an overhang that provided shade. Cassie looked longingly at the river in the distance, her mouth dry. Anyu gave her a minute to catch her breath before leading the way between two large boulders into a depression in the hillside. Cassie followed carefully.
They were in a narrow passage that led downward into the heart of the hill. Roots hung from the ceiling near the entrance, but further in, the packed earth gave way to hard rock. In the cool darkness, Anyu shone brighter than a lantern, his horn lighting the way forward. “This is the place where magic gathers?” Cassie said, looking around disdainfully.
“No, this is the entryway to the place where magic gathers,” Anyu said. His footfalls echoed musically against the rock. “The closer to the core, the greater the power.”
“Of course,” Cassie muttered. As the path twisted and bent deeper into the Earth, Cassie had to brace herself against the sides of the passage, trying to keep up with Anyu so that she could see where she put her feet. Finally, the passage opened up and they faced a natural archway before a large cavern. Anyu stopped Cassie before she went any further.
“This is the Veil of the Watchers,” he said solemnly. “It is sacred ground steeped in the oldest magics. If you choose to step within, it is because you seek guidance and supplication from the Watchers and the powers they serve.”
Cassie looked into the cavern beyond Anyu. Moss crawled across the floor and walls, lit with the strange iridescence of things that live in the dark. Crystals, brighter than geodes peeked out of the rock, twinkling ever so slightly. At the other end of the cave was a deep pool bordered by a rock ridge. It stirred with an odd sort of current—probably a spring that fed it from beneath. The water seemed to reflect the small glow of the cave back even stronger, an ominous shine that definitely spoke of magic.
“What are the Watchers?” Cassie asked quietly.
“It’s hard to describe them,” Anyu said. “Especially in your language. It’s very limited. Can you speak any others?”
“I can speak a bit of Spanish.”
Anyu disregarded this. “Some believe they are the first creatures, older than the universe itself. They protect us, guide us, shape our destinies. Some say they are the eyes of god in this plane, doing nothing but reporting back to him of our movements so that he may intervene when necessary. All I know is that they are, and they are powerful.”
Cassie looked again at the pool, its shimmer almost hypnotizing. She sighed. “Well, I’ve come this far. Let’s do it.”
Anyu nodded and stepped forward into the cavern. “Remove your shoes,” he advised before Cassie could follow. “This is holy ground.”
As Cassie leaned against the wall and wrestled her sneakers off, Anyu walked forward to the pool and dipped his front legs in a kind of bow. His horn started to vibrate, producing a sweet singing sound, clear as a whistle and bright as a bell. The tone trilled up and down through a series of notes. Cautiously, her bare feet silent on the slippery moss, Cassie stepped up to Anyu’s side. His music stopped, and he looked up at her.
“There is a Watcher here. He says you cannot see him; is that true?”
Taken aback, Cassie stepped away from the pool. “I don’t see anyone.” She looked around as if someone might step from the shadows behind her.
“He’s here above the pool,” Anyu said. “He says you aren’t meant to see his kind yet, whatever that means.”
Curious, Cassie squinted at the area above the water. Not even a slight haze in the air to suggest something was there. “How am I supposed to talk to him if I can’t see or hear him?”
Anyu blew a raspberry. “Through me apparently. He says to tell you that everything will be all right and to ask if you’re sure you want to do this.”
“Well I was,” Cassie stepped toward the pool again, trying to see if the Watcher cast a shadow. “Now, not so much.”
Anyu made that singing noise again with his horn. It seemed to be the unicorn form of language. Cassie tried to decipher it, but her small power of translation was too slow to follow the chirruping rhythm. After a moment, Anyu translated the Watcher’s reply. “He says that the Watchers are not dangerous. One day you will see and speak to one, but not today. His job is only to guide you.” Here Anyu snorted. “He says to think of him as your guardian angel, a simple messenger of god. But you know, you’re not really a messenger,” this Anyu said to the air where the Watcher hovered. “That implies that you actually tell people things.” After another pause, Anyu snorted. Cassie imagined that whatever the Watcher had said hadn’t been particularly polite.
“Well, I guess angels aren’t any weirder than magicians or unicorns,” Cassie said with a resigned shrug. “If he doesn’t want to show himself, I don’t have the energy to be weirded out anymore. Just ask him what’s supposed to happen next.”
“He can hear you, you know,” Anyu pointed out. “As I said, there are very powerful magics at work here. All the doubts and questions you have, the Watchers can help make things clear. You will see the energy of your soul, who you truly are and what you are capable of becoming. Since it is Watcher magic, he can direct you to what you need to know.”
“He says to remind you of the burning bush. I don’t know what that means, do you?”
Reflexively, Cassie gripped her mother’s pendant. “Yeah, I do. He’s trying to talk about god again. On Earth, when god spoke to Moses he did so through a burning bush. It was on fire, but it didn’t burn up. But what does that have to do with anything?”
“If I had to guess, I’d say that the pool is the bush and the power of the Watchers is the voice of god. That right?” Anyu paused for the Watcher to answer. “Well I don’t know about any of that,” he said in reply, “but the power will work like that I suppose. He will direct it toward you through the pool and you’ll simply channel it.”
“Like a vision,” Cassie said slowly. Her last vision was still fresh in her mind. She looked up at the empty space above the pool and wondered what the Watcher looked like. Was he really an angel? Or something else entirely?
Cassie took a deep breath, filling her lungs till they stretched and then slowly breathing out. She stepped up to the edge of the water and knelt, placing her hands on the ridge like a prayer bench. “What do I do?”
“You open your heart,” Anyu said. “Then you drink the water and let it lead you.”
Cassie nodded. She cupped her hands together and dipped them under the surface. The water was cool to the touch, so pure it tingled against her skin. Very carefully, her muscles tensed to keep her hands from shaking, Cassie brought the water to her lips and drank.