The Sovereign Gods

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Rori: Crossing Lines

The further they descended down the tower the hotter she began to feel. Her heart was in a frenzy and it was starting to be harder to swallow the knot in her throat. She led the way down the stairs, finally sneaking past the Paladin's living quarters and training floor to the very first floor where the last door to the tunnels lay. She wasn't sure if Keir or her had taken a breath since leaving the upper levels.

And surprisingly they only came close to being caught twice. The cloaking spell Winifred taught her years ago came in handy, though it was a difficult spell to maintain, especially for the two of them.

They made it to the last hall where the basement door lay. Keir opened it and descended the steps into a dim tunnel. But it was brighter than Rori thought it would be. In fact, a few torches along the walls were lit.

Keir stopped and let out a loud sigh as he bent over to catch his breath. "How did Emmet manage this five times?"

Rori raked back her hair, feeling the heat along her skull. "Seriously. We're not even there yet. I feel like any moment..." She shook her head, unable to complete the thought. It was too frightening.

As they stepped further into the tunnel, she saw a Paladin standing in the middle, his armor glinting from the flames. They'd been lucky thus far and Rori thought it was quite odd to not have run into a single soul until then. But now with the Paladin standing before her, she wished their luck had stayed a little longer.

She curled her hands into fists and felt the spark of a spell tingle in her grasp.

"Keir," the Paladin greeted, nodding his head slightly at the young man.

Keir turned to her and said all too casually, "Rori, this is... the Paladin who told me what was happening." His voice changed, taking on a softer edge, something sweeter she hadn't really heard from him before, "This is Alex."

"Alex..."

Was she supposed to recognize the name? She thought perhaps she had seen him before but there were numerous Paladins guarding Sunstone and most of them wore helmets on their patrols. Why was Keir so casual about it? Had the Paladin been helping him all along?

Keir gave her a knowing look, his lips somewhat curling into an embarrassed smile. "Alex is who I've been... studying with."

"Oh? Why would you study-"

He raised a wry brow.

She jolted in surprise as she finally caught on. She huffed and sighed in slight relief. He hadn't been practicing dark magic in secret. He was having a secret rendezvous with a certain forbidden Paladin.

"Is that why they're rushing your test?"

Keir opened his mouth to speak and he glanced at Alex as they shared a guilty nod.

Rori nodded and for a brief moment she remembered Cyrus's gentle nature towards her. They weren't romantic, not quite, but their little touches and whispers were starting to feel that way. No, she reasoned, she couldn't dare entertain such thoughts. It would endanger Cyrus's life as well.

"We must hurry," Alex spoke up. "It is nice to meet you Ms. Serana but we don't have much time. Do you have the key?"

Keir removed the item from his robes.

They headed off down the tunnel and Rori might have followed but she'd spent her whole life in Sunstone. It was true she always dreamt of leaving, to see the world outside and travel Merrick's stories but now that the tunnel was before her she couldn't bring herself to do it. She had no idea what sort of things were waiting out there for her. It was... frightening.

Keir glanced back and when he saw she hadn't moved, he turned around. "We have a short window before the guards show up."

"Go without me."

"What?" Keir almost walked back for her but Alex snagged his arm. "Why would you stay?"

She muttered slightly deflated, "This is my home."

"Keir," Alex begged and dragged him further away.

Rori could hear movement outside. They were shouting, their armor clamouring as they gathered. She wasn't sure how they knew about their escape plan but she couldn't let them take Keir.

"Go," she ordered.

Before they had the chance to open the door and before Keir could run back for her, Rori gathered power from the Aether, pulling the energy through the veil and flinging it into the tunnel's ceiling. The stone fractured, snaking overhead from the point of impact towards Keir as they began racing to safety. The ceiling groaned and roared. It was caving down and she might have been crushed if someone hadn't wrenched her out by the elbow.

She was pulled out with a plume of brown smoke. Dirt and stone stung her eyes and forced her to cough. The Paladins who had been standing at the entrance began coughing as the dust filled with room.

But the Paladin Commander loomed over her without even flinching as the tunnel continued to collapse. He narrowed his eyes and glowered at her. His lips twisted into a hard scowl as he turned his gaze back to the entrance of what used to be a tunnel.

One of the Paladins spoke up, "Sir?"

Commander Zadkiel growled, "Send a group after them. Cut them off at the otherside of the tunnel if you can reach it in time."

The chancellor's slow approach drew very little attention from the Paladins. But Rori noticed him immediately. He heaved out a long sigh as if the trek through the tower had winded him. "This is unfortunate."

The commander turned sharply, meeting the old Mage eye-to-eye. "Your favorite pupil has helped a criminal escape."

Chancellor Nicaise's brow peeked. "Is that what you saw?"

The commander didn't respond. His expression hardened and, in fact, looked to Rori as if she might suddenly confess.

Rori blurted, "I came to stop Keir, actually. I was trying to stop him when the tunnel collapsed." She shrugged a shoulder just to be safe. "Keir's magic went awry, you see."

Commander Zadkiel's chest puffed as he swallowed a gulp of air.

"See?" The chancellor mused with a sweep of his hand. "Ms. Serana has never displayed any rebellious tendencies. Why would she start now?"

He tossed his head, looking at the Paladins who scrambled to contain the tunnel's mess and then back to Rori. He threw a pointed finger towards her. "If, even if, she is innocent... who knows what sort of mind altering spells he cast upon her. For all we know, she's possessed and under his control."

"She is her own." Chancellor Nicaise chuckled. "You're grasping at straws, Commander."

"Grasping at straws," the knight hissed through his teeth. "You are getting too bold, old man. She was a star pupil once. Now, she's bordering the line of traitor. Her presence here is damning. And she could possibly corrupt the others."

Rori rolled her eyes unintentionally. "Dark magic isn't contagious."

"Knight Commander." Cyrus shuffled a few steps forward. Rori hadn't even seen the youth walk in. He looked wide-eyed, face flushed red against his pale parlor. "She passed her final travail quicker than any of the other Mages. She's the most talented apprentice Sunstone has ever seen. One day she might even be the next chancellor."

Chancellor Nicaise smirked at those words but he seemed approving of them. "She's never once done anything deserving punishment, Zadkiel. You know this better than anyone."

"And you, knight? You had nothing to do with this fiasco?"

Cyrus stood firm, not batting an eyelash as he lied, "I only just heard about it from those who passed me in the hall. I came to see if I could provide some assistance."

Rori almost smiled. She was too delighted to know that Cyrus had kept her secret. There was also guilt in her heart. He had lied to his superior officer, lied despite the oath he had taken when he became a Paladin. She watched his expression, the way he refused to look over at her just in case it hinted at his guilt.

"Escort Ms. Serana to the dungeons, Ser Ruslan. Ser Morin, go ahead of them and inform the guards. Ensure she makes it to her cell."

Chancellor Nicaise flinched, face going pale. "Zadkiel."

"She needs more than a lecture." He turned his fury back to Cyrus. "And you, knight, will report to my office when you're finished. We need to have a talk."

"On your orders, Commander." He bowed his head and took the shackles that another Paladin offered. He didn't look Rori in the eyes as he approached her and cuffed her wrists. He gave another bow of his head to Commander Zadkiel before grabbing her elbow and leading the way.

Rori looked at the chancellor one final time and saw that he looked rather pale. He even averted his fluttering eyes as if he seemed embarrassed by the whole ordeal. Rori couldn't discern if he was embarrassed by Rori being arrested or his inability to protect her. His position and power were only ceremonial and held no real truth to it.

Cyrus didn't say anything until they were at the dungeon's entrance and out of earshot of anyone who might be a threat to them. "I can't help you now. This is beyond my ability."

"I know. I don't expect you to help. It's too dangerous."

"What were you thinking? If Merrick--" He choked and shook his head. "You never should have gotten involved."

"They were planning to murder someone I care about."

He opened the door and led her down the narrow spiraling steps into the dungeon. The musky scent of mold hit her senses sharply. The stairs were so dimly lit that she couldn't see where her feet were.

"The chancellor has no authority beyond this point." When he reached the base of the stairwell, he stopped and turned to her. He looked defeated. "Wards are in place to prevent the use of magic." His mouth opened a few times in search of more to say.

"There's nothing you can do. I'll be fine." She knew she had chosen her fate. The moment she stole the key was a point of no return. And she didn't feel guilty about it. If Keir survived and managed to escape she felt she could be satisfied with that alone.

"Ser Ruslan," one of the prison guards greeted as they marched to the base of the stairs. "We can take her from here. Return to your post, Paladin."

Rori didn't wait for Cyrus. She stepped past the hesitant recruit and allowed her jailor to lead the way. The long stone hallway was lit with torches and lanterns. She could feel with each step a strange tingling sensation, a numbness that started in her spine then radiated to her fingers, down to her toes. For the first time in her life she began to feel an emptiness, a void of energy and lifeforce. It must have been what dying felt like.

She began trembling and by the time the guard led her to the prison cell, she was using the wall for support. The Paladin was impatient. He removed her shackles and jerked her elbow until she was tumbling into the small cell. Her hands reached out instinctively and fell flat into the stone wall. The door clattered shut behind her and the lock clanged right after.

Rori slid her palms down the slimy stone as she dropped to her knees. She was buckled over, gasping for breath. She was shaking as if she hadn't eaten in weeks. All of her strength was completely drained out of her. Even her fingers struggled to bend.

"It gets easier," someone across the hall mused light-heartedly. ""It's like a game. Whoever passed out from the pain first loses."

Rori shifted, nearly falling sideways as she tried to get a look at the man. She just barely glimpsed him in the corner of his prison. "Emmet?" She took in a wispy breath that tickled her lungs and made her cough. "You're alive?"

"Surprisingly," he teased. "They planned on killing me but..." He gave a slight shrug. "Honestly my charm and humor are the only thing keeping me alive. I'm like a party guest."

"How long... have you been here?"

"Who's to say?" He leaned against the bars and the blonde of his hair was soiled with dirt. "Let's see... I ran away the first of Spring so..."

"That was almost eight months ago."

"Then I've been here seven."

She wondered how long they would keep her locked away. She reached into her robes where she kept the vial of honey that Merrick gave her before he had left on his last trip. Everything had felt so simple back then.

Rori leaned forward, sliding against the wall until she could curl up on her side. The waves of needles poking her skin assaulted her with greater force and all she could do was close her eyes and ride it out. In her palm she could feel the honey warming in her feverish grasp.
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