Once their goal had been set, the group decided to split up in order to scour more ground more quickly; Jack and Aatu went to the Aqua village, Mia and Lizzie to the Aether village, and Magus, Daevin, and Joanne to the fray of the battle itself. Daevin speedily found himself separated from his two comrades, but that hardly registered while he was searching for the bird and avoiding flying projectiles. Terrathians were using their clubs or maces like a baseball bat to hit large rocks in their enemies’ direction. Aethers created tornadoes that spun debris around until it came into contact with any warrior who came too close. Aquas thrust out tentacles of water from sacs they had hanging from their belts, or even from the humid air itself. Some of the people from each group abandoned their elements altogether, choosing instead to battle sword-against-sword.
Obviously, it was not easy for Daevin to avoid the violent confrontations, even when trying to circle outside the perimeter of the worst of the fighting. As great as he had found the Terrathian training, Daevin realized that the Aether tactic of reacting without thinking was more helpful when trying to evade blows—especially the ones that weren’t aimed towards him. If he let himself be surprised, well, he’d be dead. Suffering a knock of a rock the size of his head didn’t exactly allow room for second chances, a fact Daevin well remembered as he held his shield aloft. Terrathian-learned strength and endurance did come in handy when Daevin ran into overly zealous Aquas or Aethers who assumed he was a Terrathian after a glance at his dress and shield. He withstood gusts of wind and punches of water (frozen and unfrozen), all without being pushed back more than a centimeter per bout.
At last, he saw it. The orange-yellow of its wings, the blood red of its throat, which shook as it screeched, and the streak of gray smoke. Whenever the large bird’s shadow fell on a pair of warriors, their fight would erupt with renewed hatred, violence, and fury. Daevin longed for a bow and arrow, but he didn’t have much of an aim; he briefly scanned the battle arena for Camira, whom he knew was an excellent shot, but she may as well have been invisible. However, as soon as this thought passed through Daevin’s mind, the pale hand of Camira forced him to spin around, which caused him to momentarily lose sight of the bird. She was one of the many archers hiding in one of the trees of the forest behind them, ready to shoot any enemy that broke from the bloodbath. When she saw Daevin out in a fight she knew wasn’t his, she knew she had to get him out of there—even if that meant risking being an archer’s target herself.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“Don’t talk, just shoot,” replied Daevin, pointing to the rainbow-colored bird.
Under any other circumstances, Camira would have wasted precious seconds to question the odd command. However, because it was Daevin, who had kept her relationship with Admon a secret and who had proven himself to be a dedicated and faithful trainee, she had automatic trust in him. So, she aligned the point of her arrow with the bird, and let the arrow soar before her next exhale. Knowing she had made her mark without a second look, Camira threw herself back into the chaos. She really had no choice in doing so, because she could hear the giveaway roar of her new opponent, an aggressive Terrathian who was swinging a sword toward her neck. She flung her head back, arching her spine for half a second, and then swiveling around until she stood poised for striking.
Meanwhile, Daevin watched the bird plummet down, down, down, with the arrow caught in the flesh of its wing and a squawk of pain escaping from its beak. Daevin soon stood in front of the shuddering form of Claudius, but before Daevin could bring down his sword to kiss the bird’s scarlet neck, Admon’s despairing scream rolled across Viridis Valley. The Terrathian who had been dueling with Camira had sliced her abdomen into strips, but Admon’s swinging club knocked the Terrathian out of the way before he could finish the kill.
Admon did not stop with the Terrathian; his club cleared a three-foot radius around him and the prone form of Camira, crashing into Terrathians, Aquas, and Aethers alike. Admon’s heart had splintered at the sight of the dying Camira, but the rage swelling in his chest pumped blood and adrenaline at a heart rate ten times quicker than normal. A strength that his arms and legs never knew before took over his body, and the very glare of Admon’s eyes was enough to stab anyone who looked at him. Gathering all his newfound power and screaming with every atom of his being, Admon thrashed his club in a mighty blow that nearly broke the valley apart. The ground up to a hundred feet in front of Admon cracked, groaned, and crumbled beneath the feet of warriors. As the army fell along with the collapsing earth, Admon swept up the blood-soaked Camira in his arms and began running towards the forest.
Admon whizzed past Daevin so quickly that he was barely more than a blur of brown, green, and silver. Daevin looked back down at the ground before him, and realized that the bird had vanished without even leaving a drop of its black blood as evidence. Pushing a brief, frustrated sigh out of chapped lips, Daevin sheathed his sword and raced after Admon. As he ran, he could hear the confused groans of the people half-buried in the wreckage that Admon left behind, and wondered if it was even a good idea to be following the agitated Admon. However, Daevin decided that abandoning a friend in distress was not an option, and besides, he knew someone who could be the solution.
“Admon, wait!” cried Daevin. “I know someone who can heal her! Mia!”
Admon halted so quickly that he nearly tumbled forward, and when he jerked around, he looked at Daevin with eyes that hardly dared to hope.
“Where… is she?” Admon panted.
“The Aether village,” answered Daevin. “Come with me.”
The Aethers lived in various clearings in the forest that climbed up the mountain opposite the Aquas. Daevin called Mia’s name, but he doubted he could be heard. There were too many skirmishes between Aethers, Aquas, and Terrathians for Daevin to make a dent in the barrier of noises, even when Admon joined him in croaking out Mia’s name. Admon’s adrenaline rush had now been exhausted, and his limbs were shaking with the additional weight of his beloved. Admon’s bottom lip shuddered and the edges of his eyes were rimmed with ready-to-spill tears, but Admon continued to march behind the increasingly desperate Daevin. The warriors were too busy fighting and the civilians were too busy hiding in their huts to even point in a general direction. Because of his animation power, Daevin could feel the life crawling out of the limp Camira more keenly than even Admon.
“Please, Adonai,” Daevin pleaded under his breath, “give an answer to our cry.”
A whiplash of water suddenly smacked the back of Daevin’s head, causing him to yelp in pain and to whirl around to see Dayla, who was shooting out streaks of water in a dozen different directions at once. Her eyes widened with shock and apology when she noticed Daevin’s dripping hair, and once the area was clear of opponents, she stopped unleashing her torrent of water. Dayla darted towards Daevin and Admon, and as she did so, her face transformed from bewilderment to sympathy when she saw Camira.
“Have you seen Mia?” Daevin asked in a tone that pleaded for a “yes.”
“No,” admitted Dayla, “ but I can help you. Come.”
Dayla took Daevin and Admon to a deeper thicket, where the death throes and the cries of battle did not ring so loudly in their ears. Dayla kneeled next to Camira, whose head was cradled in Admon’s lap and whose hand was being squeezed by Admon’s hand. Daevin stood guard with his sword drawn and shield upheld, ready for a confrontation from a straggling fighter that might come their way; his eyes were steeled with determination to protect his friends, even at the risk of his own life. He had never looked more like a knight.
Taking out a very small brown bottle from her belt, Dayla explained, “These are the healing waters from the pool in the heart of our village. There is just enough to hold her over until we dip her whole body into the pool.”
Camira’s abdominal injuries were in such a severe state that Dayla had to dump all the contents of her bottle for them to begin to heal. Daevin wanted to gag when he looked back and saw the bubbling ooze of water and blood across Camira’s stomach. Dayla capped the bottle, re-attached it to her belt, and intercepted Admon when he tried to slide his arms underneath Camira so he could lift her up.
“Don’t move her until the healing water has done its job,” commanded Dayla sternly. “It should take a minute or two.”
“Uh, I don’t think we have a minute or two,” said Daevin, who pointed to a lofty Aqua warrior.
The warrior wore a chainmail hauberk and navy blue padding underneath with sleeves and leggings stretching past the chainmail. His dark blue helmet allowed a full view of his face, while hugging every curve of his skull as if it were tailored to fit its shape perfectly. From the edges of the helmet outlining his face came a light blue, wave-shaped extension that ran along the sides of his helmet that curled into a white end near his ears. Around the warrior revolved a streak of water, making him look like a blue planet with its rings eternally circling around it. His sapphire eyes locked onto a more than slightly nervous Daevin, and he approached with pounds of determination pushed into every step. Daevin inhaled through his teeth and closed his eyes, but when he reopened them he realized that the warrior was focused on a guilty Dayla, who hovered over Camira.
“What are you doing?” growled the warrior.
“Friends, meet my spunky, fun-spirited brother,” introduced Dayla with a half-hearted teasing tone that, frankly, did not belong in a place where someone was covered with slowly dissolving blood and where battle screams could be still be heard.
“So these are your friends now, huh?” seethed Dayla’s brother.
“Calder, don’t,” pleaded Dayla. “This girl needed help.”
“She’s an Aether,” spat Calder.
“She’s also probably the little sister of a big Aether warrior who would be devastated if anything happened to her,” retorted Dayla. “She’s somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter, and somebody’s friend. She matters to someone out there, same as you and me.”
Calder was too startled to answer back for a few moments as Dayla checked Camira’s abdomen. By the time she gestured to Admon that Camira was ready to be taken to the healing pool, Calder had scraped up enough of his voice to speak again.
“Where are you going?” asked Calder, using a tone that was slightly softer than what he had used before.
“She’s still in critical condition,” responded Dayla. “There’s only one place I know where she can get some real help.”
“You can’t take her to the healing pool!” Calder exploded. “She’s an Aether!”
“That’s not a good enough reason not to do this!” protested Dayla. “Tell me, Calder, do you really want this war to last forever? This is the war that killed our ancestors, our friends… and our parents.”
Dayla swallowed, making a face that made it seem like she was trying to gulp down a rock. Calder swiftly turned his face aside and rubbed an eye with the heel of his hand, while Dayla watched him. Hours seemed to pass as Calder stared at the twigs and tree foliage at his feet, until he finally looked directly at his sister.
“Okay,” he said quietly. “Only because it’s you.”
Admon’s muscles were shaking when he hefted up Camira, but his expression indicated that he would rather die than set her down again. Calder licked his lips and compressed them for a moment while he watched Admon struggle with his first few steps behind Dayla and Daevin.
“Do you…” Calder swallowed thickly. “Do you need help?”
Admon jerked to a stop and turned around. “You expect me to trust you with the love of my life?”
Calder blinked, but once he had shaken himself, the shock ebbed from his features and he could look straight into Admon’s doubtful eyes.
“I will carry her as carefully as if she were my sister,” answered Calder.
“Calder is a good man,” Dayla assured when Admon hesitated, “and he never goes back on his word.”
“Admon, if you don’t start trusting each other now, when will you ever do it?” Daevin asked.
That did it. Admon shifted the unconscious Camira into the arms of Calder, who nodded solemnly at Admon to confirm his promise.
“Cover us,” said Calder.
The multi-colored group attracted much more attention than they would have liked, but they had to acknowledge it wasn’t common for Aethers, Aquas, and Terrathians to be together without fighting each other. Friends and relatives kept calling out to Admon, Dayla, and Calder, but no one touched them as they traversed the valley; likely they were all too astonished to think of fighting any of them. Some people disengaged from their duels altogether in order to follow the odd little band, until the Aquas figured out where Dayla was leading.
“Dayla, you can’t take them there!” screamed many of the Aquas.
In answer, Dayla thrust a wave of water from the river into the protestors’ faces. She began to run toward the healing pool, and her companions followed her example within a single frantic beat of their hearts. They stood at the edge when a flood of water rushed toward them from behind and wet them up to the calves of their legs. Before they could make another move, the water around their ankles froze, and Calder wobbled from the combined effect of the sudden halt and the extra weight of Camira.
“Throw her in!” shouted Dayla, who fought to un-freeze the ice against the will of the other Aquas.
Calder obeyed at the moment Admon screamed in alarm, and after Camira splashed into the water, it seemed as if the whole valley came to a standstill. The surface of the pool was as smooth as glass for what Admon thought was at least a hundred years, until a few bubbles floated up and Camira’s blond head broke apart the stillness. She inhaled deeply, while Admon whooped from the pit of his chest and dove into the water. Admon helped her out of the pool, and although she was drenched and her attire could hardly be considered armor anymore, she appeared to be fine. Camira’s white belly was completely clear of every blemish, without even a scar or dried blood remaining, and her eyes were glowing with life again. If no one fainted at what they had seen so far, someone surely did when Admon enfolded Camira in his arms and encountered her lips with his.
News of the spectacle soon touched the ears of the leaders of the Terrathians, Aethers, and Aquas after the battle fizzled out that day. A meeting was called between the leaders, Daevin and his friends, Admon, Camira, Dayla, and Calder; it took place in the Terrathians’ war conference room (whose purpose was now yet to be re-determined). Admon sat very close to Camira, and Camira to Admon, while Joanne huddled next to Daevin as they watched anxiously for Ekon’s reaction. Imber was proud of the compassion and courage of Dayla and Calder, while the Aether leader was grateful for the aid they, along with Admon and Daevin, had given to Camira (who happened to be her niece). Ekon, however, had said nothing since the first-hand account from Dayla, Admon, Calder, Daevin, and Camira had finished. His eyes were dark, but his face was devoid of all emotion, which unsettled Admon most of all, because he had always known Ekon to speak his thoughts.
Finally Ekon looked at Admon and Camira, and he asked the question that everyone least expected from him: “Do you two really love each other?”
Everyone’s eyes widened and they mumbled incoherently to each other, while Admon and Camira shifted in their seats. Camira was secretly afraid that Admon was going to be ashamed of her—after all, she knew that he was a protégée of Ekon and had long enjoyed the powerful man’s favor. However, she was able to relax when Admon’s fingers wove through hers and he said confidently, “We do.”
Ekon sighed wearily, for the first time in his military career sounding defeated. “I thought so. Nothing less than love could have motivated you to do what you did yesterday.”
“So, now what?” asked Admon. “Are our peoples still at war?”
Ekon glanced at Imber, and then at Aura, the head of Aethers.
“I don’t think we can very well continue as we are,” admitted Ekon. He rotated his head until he locked gazes with Daevin. “You were right about that bird. Terrathian scouts confirmed that none of our weaponry could be found in the Aqua’s stores.”
“And none of our food was found in Terrathian or Aqua territory,” piped up Aura.
“Claudius is dead now, right?” Ekon asked Daevin.
Daevin paused. “I don’t know how, actually. I found Claudius on the ground with Camira’s arrow in his wing, but when I looked back, he had disappeared.”
“Black magic had something to do with it, I’m sure,” asserted Imber.
“At any rate, the bird is gone and will no longer stir up trouble between our peoples,” said Aura.
“Quite right!” exclaimed Ekon. “How about now we begin drafting up a peace treaty? Then afterward we can anoint Prince Daevin.”
“Whatever for?” asked Zwinkie, who was just as surprised as Daevin.
“Prince Daevin has helped bring peace to our land!” boomed Ekon. “I would have no other King over us. Am I right?”
Ekon’s question was directed to his fellow leaders, who nodded and smiled. Everyone turned to either beam or gawk at Daevin, causing red to crawl up the base of his neck and settle on his burning cheeks. Magus was the only one of Daevin’s friends who didn’t seem at all surprised. It was as if he had conspired with Ekon about this beforehand—although he always denied it afterward. However, Daevin stood up and held up his hands to quell the chattering among his comrades.
“I am grateful that you would be willing to give me such a high honor,” said Daevin, “but I cannot accept.”
Imber frowned. “Why not?”
Daevin fidgeted, unable to look anyone in the eye.
“You deserve a king who is good and pure,” Daevin insisted. “I am not that. I did the worst possible thing a man can do. I used black magic.”
“Black magic?” shrieked Aura, jumping up from her seat.
“Settle yourself, Aura,” said Ekon. “He is no longer in the dark arts.”
“You of all people are keeping your temper in check?” said Aura. “That filthy magic is the same as the Dark Lord’s. You know how many of his spies he’s sent to our valley in hopes of capturing one of our own and harnessing our power.”
“Magus and Prince Daevin informed me about the situation in confidence,” replied Ekon. “It is not wise to keep something from the person who has given you shelter and provisions. Besides, the prince has not mentioned that he has been cleansed of his sins with the holy fire.”
Aura and Imber turned to Daevin.
“Is this true?” asked Aura.
Daevin nodded, and Aura slowly sat back down.
“Well, then there is no question,” said Imber. “Adonai has willed it, so you are still our rightful king. The anointing ceremony will take place unless there are any further objections.” After hearing none, Imber nodded and looked at Daevin with narrowed blue eyes. “Your Majesty, do not doubt Adonai’s declaration, lest you insult His ability to make it true. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” said Daevin, who did his best to believe her.