Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts and place your seats and tray tables into the upright and locked position; the flight of fantasy is coming to a close.
Circles of Blood: Keep watch for the sequel in a few weeks (or days).
And now, the dénouement.
Not a danger, not a blacky stranger
Rock it - rock it - knock to my door I'll open
Speak my name now, speak if it you know how
Fly to me, get ready for the
Night of fire, you've better better stay
You've better better begin the prayer to play
Night of fire, come over over me
Come over over the top you'll have a night of fire
Niko's Night of Fire
My love for you, unconditional love too
Gotta get up, get up
Get up, get up, get up and show you that it
Doesn't really matter what the eye is seeing
Cause I'm in love with the inner being
And it doesn't really matter what they believe
What matters to me is you're in love with me Doesn't matter if you're feeling insecure
Doesn't matter if you're feeling so unsure
Cause I'll take away the doubt within your heart
And show that my love will never hurt or harm
Janet Jackson's Doesn't Really Matter
Chapter 36: Night of Fire
Rowen tried to shout to Julian, "No!" but the Gate collapsed, and Julian was in Crag Castle with him and a half-dozen annoyed-looking Haighlei warriors.
Rowen was half-expecting to be skewered right then and there, but to his chagrin, one stepped forward and said in a heavily accented voice, "You couldn't have mentioned that you were going to Gate here?"
"What?" Rowen asked, confused. Julian was shaking his head, looking bewildered and alarmed.
"The Envoy Ayize bade us follow you and assist you should you decide to come to the Capital of the Empire and assassinate the Emperor. There were twenty more men assigned to the task, but we were the only ones able to come through the Gate before that mage pulled it down."
Incensed, Rowen growled. "And you didn't think to mention that you could have helped me?"
"You didn't ask."
Before he could strangle the man, Rowen turned his attention to Julian.
"Are you alright?"
"I think so," Julian muttered. Rowen closed in on him and knelt down beside him, then reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.
The second his hand made contact with Julian's skin, he was hit with a wave of utter despair, rage, sorrow, confusion, and a million other emotions that crawled in and over and around his skin and made him want to scream.
A sharp, stinging slap to his face brought him around somewhat, and he stared down at Julian, who was making an obvious effort not to scream the words at him.
"You bastard, what the hell were you thinking coming here alone?! Why in Kernos' name would you do that to me, you son of a bitch!"
Rowen didn't say anything. He couldn't say anything. Julian continued railing.
"Did you just plan on screwing me and then leaving me? Oh you bloody bastard what a fine partner you are to just fuck me and then leave me in the belly of a ship with nothing left and no way to get to you and then feel you die five hundred furlongs away and not be able to do anything about it." Julian snarled and slapped him again, and Rowen took it.
Tears were streaming down Julian's face in torrents, dripping off the end of his chin. His nose was rapidly reddening, and he was sniffling hard every third word.
The Haighlei watched silently, weapons relaxed and eyes half-lidded.
Rowen felt a jagged wave of guilt wash over him. "Julian, I--"
"How could you?" Julian asked, and the anger in his voice was fading.
Rowen kept his silence.
"How. Could. You?"
"I don't know," Rowen said into a terrible silence. "I just did it. I didn't think. He--Melles needs to die. But..." He trailed off, unable to finish it.
"But I don't want to die doing it," Rowen whispered.
Julian kept his stony silence.
Rowen gulped and finished, forcing the words out around a horrible lump in his throat. "I don't want to do that to you."
The Bard still didn't say anything, and Rowen reached out and pulled him into his arms, holding his stiff body close.
"Please," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
After interminable hours, Julian relaxed somewhat, and Rowen drew him closer. "I don't know what I was thinking," he whispered into tangled strings of blonde hair.
Julian's arms slowly found their way around Rowen's torso, and as the Valdemaran hugged him, Rowen felt the full magnitude of what he'd almost done.
"I don't deserve you," he whispered in wonder.
Julian said something that was muffled against Rowen's armor, and he didn't look up. Before Rowen could ask, love poured from the man in his arms, an outflowing that left him breathless and filled with wonder.
The Haighlei warrior that had spoken to Rowen cleared his throat, reminding him of their duty.
"Julian, do you want to stay by my side through all of this? Do you want to be my partner in both soul and duty, and help me stop the madman who seeks the destruction of both our countries?"
The words had an odd, formal ring to them, and Rowen wondered if the words themselves weren't his own.
"I do," Julian said. "And I'll follow you beyond, if we survive this."
Rowen felt a great weight drop out of his stomach and a still greater one settle upon his heart.
I didn't want him to be a part of this. Madman or not, this is murder. And we may not survive it.
"I don't care," Julian whispered.
Rowen looked at the lone speaking Haighlei. "What is your name?"
"Kwame. I am the son of one of the Black Kings under Dumisai. I was sent personally by him to do as Ayize directed."
"I see. And the rest of you?"
Rowen committed those names to memory. If any of them didn't survive this, he would atone for it.
With Rowen leading the way, the men quietly ventured down the stone hallway, past old cells long walled up and a few new ones.
A thin whisper made it's way out past a hastily walled-up cell, and Rowen frowned. "Stop."
"What is it?" Oji asked, gripping his spear tightly.
"There's someone in this one." A loud thud came from the other side of the wall, and Julian jumped.
Rowen corrected himself. "Someone--maybe something."
"Someone alive," Julian chimed in firmly. "Someone. And they want out."
"Do they have any intents on harming us?" Kwame asked cautiously.
"No. All I'm sensing is hopelessness and anger. I can't tell who it's directed at, but it's at one person in particular."
"Well, then," Rowen said. "In for a copper--" and he turned and kicked in the wall with his hind hooves.
Mortar-dust and stale air filled the hallway, and from inside the cell came a low moaning sound.
Rowen cautiously lit a spark in the air and sent it whirling into the cell, where it illuminated the slim form of a woman before it went out. But her shape was all wrong.
"Hello?" he said hesitantly, sending in another flame."
The woman groaned. "Water. Please, I need--water." Oji hastened into the cell, waterskin in hand. He tipped its contents into the woman's lips, and she drank faster than Rowen had ever seen someone drink water before.
When the water was all gone, the woman rose shakily to her feet with the help of the wall. "Thank you," she said, lurching unsteadily. As she came into the light from the flickering torches in the hallway, the Haighlei backed away, and even Rowen felt alarmed.
The woman looked green in the light, but there was nothing green in the hallway for her skin to reflect.
Her hair looked like vines, twining in and out of and around each other, and her fingertips had leaves sprouting out of them. She was still recognizably a woman, but her skin was rough and dark like bark, and her eyes were a pure, glowing green, though the light was very dim.
Like foxfire, Rowen thought, and she looked at him.
"You kicked in the wall?" she asked, and when she opened her mouth, Rowen felt his stomach lurch. Instead of a tongue she had a twisting set of hollow, hard, reeds.
"Yes," he said.
New branches sprouted from her shoulders and joints, and along her back a set of moss grew. It matched that covering the personal parts of her, though Rowen didn't see the point. He doubted there was much to look at there.
Her shape was bent over and hunched, much like the weeping willows of the ponds in the North, and more moss showed under her arms when she moved them away from her sides.
Roots sprouted out of the tree-woman's feet and easily ripped apart the stones of the floor, and slowly but steadily, her eyes grew brighter.
She retracted the rootlets, and her gaze hardened. "Where is the Emperor?" she asked.
"Why?" Rowen asked. If she wanted to protect him...
"I'm going to kill him," she said.
Rowen smiled. "Not if we get there first."
Her eyes changed from a dark green to a paler, more lively tone. "Shall we journey together?"
"Only one question."
"What were you?"
Her branches drooped a little. "I was a scholar," she admitted. "And I was caught by a changecircle on my way to the Capital. And now I am the very thing I used to read."
Rowen didn't want to question the statement; in the West, books were printed on vellum and bound in leather.
"Then help us," he said. She nodded.
Kwame asked, "Are there any others here that could help us?"
Her mouth twisted in a grimace. "No. They are all dead or too close to it to be of any use."
"Oh," Rowen said.
Julian moved closer to her. "What is your name?"
"It was Alessa."
"Then help us, Alessa."
They made their way slowly through corridors, dodging guards. When they couldn't, a well-placed spear or arrow silenced an alarmed guard, and by the time they reached the Throne Room, Rowen had six dead guards to his name, and the Haighlei had two or three each.
Alessa had none, but Rowen suspected that that would change soon.
Alessa led the way now, leading them through hidden passageways that let them bypass several groups of guards that would have spelled their doom, and then they came to the doors of the Throne Room.
A bakers dozen guards in full armor were waiting there, arms at the ready. They spotted Alessa and Rowen first--who wouldn't?--and yelled a challenge, poising themselves for battle. Before Rowen could pull back an arrow on the bow, the Haighlei were charging the men, each black man taking on two men. Kwame took on three, and the Haighlei cleared the guards to the walls, opening a path for Rowen, Julian, and Alessa.
"Go!" Kwame shouted, drawing a short knife across one guard's throat.
Rowen grabbed Julian bodily and galloped past, Alessa hot on his heels.
Together they burst through the doors to the Throne Room, only to find it empty, bereft of both courtiers and Melles.
The only thing occupying the room was a huge metal throne made of what looked like hundreds of varied weapons.
Rowen swore, and Alessa looked around. "There is an entrance behind that tapestry," she said gesturing.
Behind them, Julian gasped and then muffled it.
"What is it," Rowen asked, twisting around. Julian was dead white, and his lips were thin. "It's nothing," he said unconvincingly, though waves of shock and dread were pouring off of him.
Rowen took his arm and led him toward the tapestry.
"It's a hidden staircase," Julian said dully. "There's going to be a walled-off top and you're going to have to kick it in."
Alessa looked at the blind man incredulously. "How do you know that?" she asked.
That's what I'd like to know.
"You don't want to know," Julian said in that bleak, dead voice.
Alessa drew the tapestry aside, and when they stepped through, the sounds of the fighting in the hallway leading to the Throne Room vanished.
They went up the staircase slowly, Rowen leading with swords drawn, Julian stumbling along in his wake and Alessa bringing up the rear.
They found Melles on the roof, waiting for them.
"So this is the creature who presumed it could stop me," Melles sneered as Rowen shoved Julian behind him.
"I don't presume anything," Rowen said, drawing an arrow. He nocked, pulled, and let it fly straight at Melles' left eye, but it incinerated into frozen dust in the shape of an arrow a full foot away from his face and crumbled into ash when the Emperor plucked it from the air.
"My turn," Melles said, gesturing.
The air around the three would-be assassins electrified, and little snaps and sparks of lightning reached out every few seconds to zap one of them.
Julian drove it back with a wall of dread and despair that nearly knocked Rowen to his knees, and the lightning vanished.
Melles' next move was to send fifty daggers of pure light towards them, but they traveled no farther than the midpoint between them.
Fire curled out of the air and ate each dagger like a toad snapping flies out of the air.
While Melles was distracted, the scribe took her chance.
Alessa flowed toward the Emperor like water, roots winding around his legs like snakes.
Rowen watched as his purposefully gesturing arms were pinned straight away from his sides, outstretched as far and father than they should have gone, popping as they were pulled.
The female Changechild twined about Melles, roots sinking far between the stones. Melles began to look somewhat frightened.
"No," he howled, clawing at the arms drawn about him in a parody of a lover's embrace.
"No, no no no!"
Alessa looked at Rowen one last time. "Burn us," she commanded.
Rowen looked her in the eye, then nodded.
The air ignited.
He watched as Alessa and Melles burned together, and beside him, Julian crumpled.
"Why?" he moaned, stretching the word out as he rocked back and forth. Rowen fought to keep his concentration, but intensified the heat. Alessa looked like she was in ecstasy, and Melles fought against his burning bonds.
He succumbed before they did, and he and Alessa fell together, breaking into clumps of burned wood and bone on the stone roof of the Castle.
Rowen watched some of the ash get swept off the rooftops, and then he reached down and plucked a few pieces of burned wood off the floor. He slipped them reverently into a pouch on his belt.
Alessa would get a proper burial.
Around them, men began boiling up from hidden entrances to the roof.
The men converged on him and Julian, and Rowen fought fiercely to keep them both alive. Sheet after sheet of flame burned men alive, and his swords took care of the men that survived the onslaught of fire. A circle of men was piling up high around him to the point where men were climbing over three and four foot high walls to fight him.
Rowen was getting tired, and he couldn't send any more fire. His head felt like it was about to explode, and he knew he'd overdone something, but certain lines in his brain felt like they'd been freshly cauterized.
And the men kept coming.
"I'm sorry, Julian," he yelled. His arms felt like lead, but still they moved.
Julian yelled something back, and suddenly many of the men fell backwards, screaming.
"I'm sorry, too!" the Bard yelled. He stood up beside Rowen and reached an arm over his back.
He opened his mouth to say something else, and men began to climb over the wall of bodies again.
Behind them, something spoke. :Are you just going to stand there all day?:
Rowen spun around. Sitting behind them, looking completely calm, was a cream cat with a red brick mask and paws.
:Cat got your tongue?:
"Altra!" Julian shouted.
The cat blinked large blue eyes at them. :We don't have a lot of time. Now let's get out of here.:
The Firecat pranced forward, tail held high.
Crag Castle vanished.
"I'm afraid there's nothing we can do."
"Completely burned out and cauterized shut. I've never seen anything quite like it."
"Am I a danger to anyone?"
"Can I go?"
"Thank you, Healer Miriam," Rowen replied dutifully.
He left the Healer's Wing, unsure of whether he should feel relieved or upset. Overusing his Firestarting channels to defend himself and Julian on the roof of Crag Castle had done something that no one could fix; his channels were sealed shut and healing. He couldn't use flame again.
Not that that would be much of a problem. Enemies wouldn't have been a problem with the Sworn training him, and the flame was just another weapon. One that he hopefully wouldn't need any longer.
He stopped by the Temple on one side of the Field to make an offering and gratitude to the souls of the Haighlei who had (presumably) been lost in Crag Castle. They hadn't found their way up to the roof, and no one had heard from them. They were lost, presumed dead, and mourned.
The Empire was in a shambles; energy from an unknown source had leveled Crag Castle only minutes after they'd been Jumped out, and many buildings in the main city had damage, and fields for several miles around it were covered in blight or were burned.
Tremane and Valdemar were slowly but quietly sending in certain mages and trusted advisors to set up a democracy that would hopefully help the Empire restore itself over time and divide back into sovereign countries. The estates and lands in the North were attempting to set an example; they had organized themselves into the nation of Saturnus, and were the most organized out of all the Empire.
The armies had gone home after realizing that Melles was dead and hadn't picked a successor. The Marshall-General had ordered all but a few sections of the army to help rebuild the rest of the country, and those that were left on the Border were engaging in no activity, defensive or offensive.
Rowen wandered back to the ekele slowly, each foot finding its own way in the grass as he traversed the green expanse.
He found Julian waiting outside.
"It's a siren song," Julian whispered, blind gaze distant and far away. "You can't hear it?"
He extended something to Rowen, and suddenly Rowen felt it, too--a summons that called them to follow it, farther into the Grove than the ekele was.
They walked together through the Grove, following that strange, fey call until they stood in the very center of the copse of trees, alone and with no sign that they were anywhere near open land, let alone a city.
A woman, draped in black with crossed swords over her back, appeared in the clearing. Her presence was nearly overwhelming, and Her eyes were the bejeweled black velvet of the night sky.Kal'enel!
Rowen dropped to his knees as best he could, wincing at the pulled and torn muscles that were being strained. Beside him, Julian did the same, and they waited for Her to speak with bated breath.
--Rowen shena Tale'sedrin.--
"Warrior," he said reverently. Beside him, Julian gasped at her voice.
--You have done well.--
"Thank you," he said humbly.
--You have risked your lives to save your countries. I believe that deserves reward.--
She didn't move, but suddenly they weren't alone.
--You may remain here, locked in that form for this life with your lifebonded partner.--
Two Rowens appeared in the glen, almost larger than life and both near-glowing. His current form, half-horse, half man, and his old, old, human form, garbed and veiled in black.
--Or you can remain forever in my service as you once were, wholly human.--
Human Rowen's eyes were pure black and and stippled with tiny stars in their depths. Cold, spirit. Inhuman.
There was no question about the answer.
"I'll stay. Here. With Julian. I don't care what form I'm in. As long as I'm with him, I'm whole."
The words seemed to reverberate around them in the Grove, crystallizing in the air.
Kal'enel smiled. --It is a good choice.--
She vanished. The vysaka--the Goddess-bond that had been keeping Rowen's emotions in check vanished.
Julian made a choking noise, bracing his hands on the ground.
Rowen turned. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"I--" Julian stuttered, gasping for air. "She--"
He turned his head to look at Rowen, and it only took Rowen a moment to realize the difference.
Julian's eyes were brilliant and clear, focused on him--looking into Rowen's eyes.
He had never seen eyes so intense and blue. Meeting Julian's gaze was like falling into a Companion's eyes, and with an almost-audible snap, something in the lifebond connected.
"Your eyes are blue," Rowen murmured.
"And you're breathtaking," Julian whispered, reaching up to stroke Rowen's face.
Thank you, Goddess, Rowen thought.
Julian's lids slipped over those enchanting, seeing eyes as he leaned in.
And Rowen kissed him gladly.