See Part 1 for Disclaimer
Aerin held onto her tightly, his wracking frame pressed up against her solid one. Silent tears streamed down his cheeks, soaking into her riding pants. She wrapped her arm around his upper back, soothing him with soft strokes of her hand and quiet words of comfort.
But she was numb, crouched on the floor of the throne room in disbelief. Glass crunched beneath her knees, cutting into the thin flesh, but she paid it no mind. Her other hand, the one not wrapped around his shoulders, clenched in a fist at her side, her fingernails cutting into her flesh to leave crescent-shaped cuts, blood dripping from her knuckles.
A million scenarios ran through her head, each one a what-if. What if they had been there sooner? What if they had been there from the beginning? What if this could have been prevented? Could they, could she have saved them?
The sounds of the dying echoed around her: the screams of pain, the sobs of regret, the final moans of life. She was supposed to save them all. But she wasn't there when they needed her to protect them, when they needed their hero to rescue them from the darkness that threatened the very fabric of life. And they had paid the price of her failure.
Mages, numbering in the hundreds, lay among the tens of thousands dead, diminishing an already dwindling population. Buildings had collapsed, trapping the people inside. Fires ravaged the city, Upper and Lower. For every person that had died, 10 were injured. There weren't enough Healers for them all. The Upper City was a crumbling ruin of its former self, the Lower City a disaster area. Zimmeria's most impenetrable city had been nearly destroyed.
For the first time in history, enemy forces had snuck past the country's borders and sacked its capitol. Xarnac laid ruin to Zimmeria, forcing the Queen and her Lord Protector to make the ultimate sacrifice. It was with dry eyes that she thought of all this. She needed to be strong. Everyone looked to her now. And she would not disappoint. The new Queen of Zimmeria had no margin for error.
-The day before in the early hours of the morning-
She pushed aside errant strands of hair away from her face with a puff of air and a shake of her head. It wasn't an effective method, but it kept her hands involved in their present task. Silence surrounding her, Janet raised the bow in her arms, nocking the arrow with expert grace. She held still, arm muscles taut as she waiting for her target to appear. Her only warning was a soft whisper of Conjured magic before a small pillow flew across the room.
Janet took quick aim and released the bow string, the arrow whistling through the air before hitting its target with accurate force. Momentum interrupted, the pillow flew with the arrow, hitting the wall in front of Janet. Triumph flared within Janet for a moment before she sighed and summoned the arrow back to her.
Exhaustion pulled at her, but she wasn't willing to give into it. Weird dreams plagued her sleeping hours. Since arriving back in Zimmeria, she hadn't been able to sleep without seeing Ulmeraan Telmar, Grand Mage of 8000 years past and a man guilty of crimes against his King, through the eyes of those who knew him or encountered him. None of the meditation practices Janet had learned helped block these dreams and she didn't dare take any of the potions Healers used to initiate sleep. Insomnia, it seemed, was the best way to deal with the invasive dreams.
'These dreams didn't bother me on Earth,' Janet thought as she caught the arrow, though she wasn't sure if it was the sheer distance from Zimmeria or Daniel's comforting presence beside her at night that kept the dreams at bay. Her heart ached in her chest for a brief moment.
Part of her hadn't wanted to return to Zimmeria. The idea of staying with Daniel, sharing her life and her bed with him, provided an attraction stronger than Janet anticipated. But she knew what her duty was. Bound by magic and pride, Janet couldn't give up her obligations.
So, at the end of the week of introductory negotiations, Janet went back with the promises of meeting again. Her last night with Daniel on Earth had been bittersweet, almost tainted by the knowledge that she had to go back and that he couldn't go with her.
But all she could think about now was the fact that she hadn't had a decent night's sleep in almost two weeks. So, avoiding sleep in the pre-dawn hours of the morning, Janet stood in the middle of a training room in the Academy, re-nocked her arrow, and waited for the next magicked pillow.
"You know, most people would be asleep right now."
Startled, Janet whirled around to face the sound. Her grip relaxed on the arrow and it flew in the direction of the speaker. She raised a hand to stop the projectile with her magic, but her new companion beat her to it.
Aerin looked down at the sharp arrowhead hovering not 2 feet away from his chest. "Shall I take this as a sign that you don't want to talk right now?" he asked, plucking the arrow from its hovering position.
Janet groaned and rubbed her tired eyes as an embarrassed blush blossomed on her cheeks. "Gods, Aerin, I'm so sorry. You startled me and my grip slipped."
Aerin approached her, holding out the arrow with what he hoped was a neutral expression on his face. "Well, no harm done…that is, unless you were really trying to kill me," he said with a crooked grin. Janet sighed and looked up at him with disapproving eyes.
Any other sarcastic comments on his "near-death experience" died on his tongue when he got a closer look at Janet's face. Dark circles hovered under her eyes and the pallor to her skin reminded him of a ghost. He swore softly. "Are you alright? You look like you haven't slept in days."
Janet cast her gaze aside, avoiding looking Aerin in the eye. "That's because I haven't," she whispered.
Ignoring the issue that stood between them like a pink elephant in the corner, Aerin laid a hand on Janet's shoulder, offering her a comforting touch. "What's wrong? Why can't you sleep?"
"I've been having these bad dreams," Janet said, sighing with a trembling breath. As much as she knew they needed to talk, Janet was relieved to have someone to talk to about this as she told him of what had been happening to her, the words tumbling from her lips.
"And you've tried blocking them? And it hasn't worked?" Aerin asked, his brow furrowing in concern.
Janet nodded. "Nothing has worked. And I've been too scared to ask for a sleeping potion as I know how addicting those are."
"I think it would be warranted in this case," Aerin said, resisting the urge to hug her.
"No, thank you," Janet said with a tone that brokered no argument and steel in her gaze, "I'll figure out a way to deal with these dreams in my own way."
Aerin sighed, deciding it wasn't worth it to argue with her. "I wonder why you're having these dreams. I mean, I've never heard of this Ulmeraan, but it doesn't sound like you have any reason for dreaming about a man who lived thousands of years ago."
Janet shrugged and said, "Who knows what the reason is. All I know is that I haven't gotten a good night's sleep since I returned from Earth."
A cheeky grin spread over Aerin's features. "Maybe you should invite Daniel to come back and keep the dreams away."
"Oh, shut it," Janet said, swatting his arm, "He has other things to deal with right now. It wouldn't be fair to ask him to come back on the off chance that he was the reason I wasn't having these strange dreams."
Aerin toned down the grin, but the smile never wavered from his face. "If you wish," was all he said in response.
"Anyway," Janet said in a clear voice, indicating that she wanted to change the topic, "What has you here in the early hours of the morning. It's an odd time to be returning from Xarnac."
At the mention of their neighboring country, Aerin's face tightened, his jaw and fists clenching in silent fury. "I decided that it would be best if we left when no one was watching."
Janet's eyebrows shot up nearly to her hairline. "You snuck out of Xarnac?"
"Yeah, well, it was getting dangerous," Aerin said with a flippancy that he didn't come close to feeling.
Aerin sucked in a deep breath at Janet's question. "Let's just say that peace is the last thing the Xarnacians have on their minds. They were courteous, yes, but you can't hide much from an Empath."
Janet frowned, worried at the future ahead of them, but knew there was not much they could do but wait and pray. "At least you tried," she said, "No one can fault you for the results."
"I know," Aerin said, running his fingers through his hair in a frustrated gesture. "Well," he said after a long pause, "I think I'm going to head up to my rooms for some sleep so I can at least appear professional while telling Karise and Father how I, how do you say it, royally screwed up."
Janet chuckled at Aerin's use of the Earth phrase. "They'll understand, really. They knew your mission had a low chance of succeeding."
"But still, it's never nice to return home empty handed," Aerin sighed as he looked Janet in the eye, "Will you be there later today as I give my report?"
Janet nodded. "I should be there anyway," she said, "So yes, I will."
"I thought so too," Aerin said, "Well, I better head up. But, before I do, would you allow me to be your Dream Keeper so you can get some sleep as well?"
Taken aback, Janet stuttered, "You would do that?"
Aerin shrugged his shoulders in feigned nonchalance. "I know it's not usually done, but it wouldn't burden me too much to do it for a few days. This way, your dreams harm no one."
"I'd like that," Janet said, her body trembling with the prospect of real sleep in the very near future. Aerin said nothing, but smiled as he reached out for one of Janet's hands, using the link already forged between them to guard her from her dreams. "Thank you," Janet whispered, exhaustion sweeping through her now that she didn't have to keep herself awake.
"I'll keep whatever dreams you do have so you can see them later on if you wish," Aerin said several moments later once the new connection had fully formed, "For now, though, let's get you up to your own rooms. I have a feeling we will not be talking with Karise and Father until much later in the day."
Janet nodded, her thoughts far away as sleep began dragging her down. The feel of Aerin's hand on the small of her back, guiding her through the Academy, comforted her and drove her to speak through her exhaustion. "Tomorrow, would you like to talk?" There was no need to say about what.
"I would love to," Aerin said with a cautious note to his voice, "Where?"
"I was thinking that a nice ride through the Nakar Plains would be a good setting for a private talk," Janet said, knowing the beautiful, endless fields of Mandragor would provide them with little distractions.
Aerin smiled. "That's a wonderful idea. I haven't gone riding there in ages." They walked the rest of the way in silence, savoring the sense of peace that rested between them. Aerin deposited Janet on the landing in front of the door to her rooms. "I'll see you when you wake up. Come find me and we'll arrange the meeting with Father and Karise."
"Thanks for making it so I can sleep," Janet said with a weary sigh.
A bittersweet smile spread over Aerin's face and he said, "Happy to do it anytime. Now go. Your bed awaits." Aerin couldn't miss the almost giddy grin that conquered Janet's face before she bade him good night and turned to enter her chambers.
Aerin waited until she shut her doors before doing the same himself. Thoughts of his own bed were not so inviting without Nyla with him. She told him before he left for Xarnac that she would be spending time with her own family for a few weeks out on the rugged coast of Zimmeria's northern shores. Mages came from all walks of life, Aerin knew, but he almost couldn't believe that the beautiful, poised young woman he had fallen in love with grew up among a family of sailors.
Shaking his head to dispel the thoughts, Aerin entered his bedroom and prepared himself for a good night's sleep that he hoped would counteract the bitter failure of his mission for peace.
-Later that day-
"If it's any consolation, I know you can sense that they don't think you're a failure," Janet said, giving Aerin's thigh a comforting squeeze.
The sea air rustled loose strands of Aerin's hair as he let out a humorless chuckle. "Thanks, but it's not really." He sighed, looking out at the darkening ocean, dusk casting its midnight hues on the clear water. "I knew that it wouldn't work, but part of me is really disappointed that it didn't."
"You tried, Aerin, that's all anyone could have asked of you. Xarnac really doesn't want peace and we're just going to have to live with that."
"Well, at least one of us had a successful mission," Aerin said with a smirk.
A dry smile graced Janet's lips. "You mean except for the part at the beginning where the US government tried to kidnap me for scientific study."
Aerin nudged Janet with his shoulder. "Aw, c'mon. Like they could have done anything to you," Aerin said.
Janet looked away, swinging her legs slowly as she dangled them over the edge of the cliff they sat on. She had missed this, she realized. They were linked in so many ways that the past few weeks had felt like she had lost an appendage. Being with him, having her best friend back, made everything feel whole once more. She knew they still needed to talk, but the knowledge that they would rested comfortably between them. They were healing and Janet felt the weight of the world lift from her shoulders in sheer relief.
"What are you thinking about?" Aerin asked after several moments of silence.
Janet shot him a mischievous look from the corner of her eye. "Can't you read my thoughts?" she teased.
Aerin snorted. "Well, I could, but it's rude and I'd rather hear them from you than take them from you."
Janet sobered, a calm smile settling over her visage. "I was just thinking how nice this is, sitting here with you. I've missed it," Janet said in a quiet voice.
"Me too," Aerin sighed. Nothing more was said as they watched the sun set, sinking below the horizon in a fury of golden colors before twilight swallowed the sky.
"Come on," Aerin said as he rose to his feet, mindful of the cliff's edge, "It's time we went inside."
Janet nodded, accepting the hand Aerin held out to her. "Yeah, it is." Janet kept her eyes on where the sun had just been, uncertainty clouding her. What did she have to be so uncertain about?
Aerin looked at her with concern on his face. "Everything all right?" he asked.
At Aerin's question, Janet shook her head to clear the clouds from her thoughts. "Everything's fine. I'm just creating trouble from thin air."
"With all the real problems you face, you can't afford ones of your own creation," Aerin said with a short laugh.
Janet rolled her eyes. "Don't I know it," she murmured as they began the light hike back up to the Palace. But try as she might, uncertainty continued to haunt her. She just wished she knew why.
Campfires dotted the forest, overwhelming the trees with sheer numbers. Thousands of soldiers rested beneath a blanket of leaved branches, each one of them forced into silence. The element of surprise was key. Though mages protected the army from sight and sound, no precautions were left untaken.
Only the sounds of the forest and the crackling of fire would offer companionship to the men that night as they waited for the moment when they would prove to their king their merit. They were the best of the best, soldiers trained since boyhood to do what no one else would. Their conquests were legendary, their methods ruthless. They would grant no mercy and spare no one who came before them. The city of Zimmeria would lay broken at their feet, fueling a war of revenge thousands of years in the making.
Lofty Zimmeria had stood above them for too long, smug in their self-righteousness, secure in their magical strength. It was time Zimmeria learned that it was no longer the strongest land among them. Xarnac had waited too long to knock their western neighbor from its pedestal and these men all hoped, and knew, that they would be honored among their people for all eternity for the actions they were about to undertake. And with protection that Zimmerians couldn't counter, Xarnac was going to force Zimmeria into submission.
But, for now, they waited and dreamed of victory.
They rode in silence in the early light of morning, the dawning sun shining behind them. They needed no words, the two of them, not for the moment. Semi-dense forest surrounded them as they followed a path they knew like the backs of their hands. The horses snorted lightly as they carried their riders to their intermittent destination.
From his perch, Aerin looked over at Janet. She looked ahead at the slim road, reins resting lightly in her fist. She looked relaxed, accepting of what they were trying to accomplish that day. Aerin looked away, remembering back to when this started, remembering the utter despair he had felt. The idea that they might regain what they once had buoyed his spirits immensely.
"Well, there it is," Janet said as the Teleport Stone came into view.
Aerin gave her a small smile. "Would you like to do the honors?" Janet nodded and dismounted, approaching the giant stone, carved symbols littering its surface. She reached in for her magic and pressed her fingers to the symbols. They each reacted to her touch, lighting up as her fingers trailed over them. Janet stood back and watched as the doorway opened, revealing to them the golden grasses of the Nakar Plains.
She turned to Aerin and remounted her horse. "After you," she said, gesturing towards the doorway. Aerin gave her a small smile before riding through, leaving Janet to follow.
"They have left the city, my Lord. Do you wish to attack now?"
"No, give them some time to move away from the Stone. We cannot have them interrupting our plans. Wait for my signal."
Janet couldn't help the whooping laugh that exploded from her as her horse galloped across the open plains. She turned her head back to see Aerin right behind her, making chase. The second they stepped out onto the plains, Janet had urged her horse into a fierce gallop, silently challenging Aerin to a good-natured race.
The grasses flew by in a blur of gold and Janet could hear Aerin echo her laugh. The horses' hooves pounded against the ground, trampling and tearing up grass as their riders spurred them on. Janet's hair flew behind her and she couldn't bring herself to care about the mess of tangles that she would have to deal with later; she hadn't felt so free in quite some time. Eventually, however, they had to slow and spare the horses.
Breathing hard with excitement, Janet pointed over to the small cluster of trees atop a nearby hill. "That looks like a good spot to rest, don't you think?" Aerin nodded and pulled on the reins, pointing the horse towards the area Janet pointed to. After ensuring that the horses wouldn't wander too far, they settled down beneath the tree, staring out at the seemingly endless sea of grass in front of them. It was idyllic and it for several moments, it inspired silence.
But as they realized what they were really there for, the silence turned awkward. Janet fidgeted, pulling out strands of grass and pulling them apart in her hands.
Aerin let out a nervous laugh. "You know, this all seems so silly now."
"I know," Janet said weakly, "But you have to admit, the scenery's gorgeous."
"Yeah, it is," Aerin sighed. He turned towards her suddenly. "I really am sorry."
Janet gave him an awkward smile. "I know. Don't have to be an Empath to figure that out."
"I'm not proud of it, mind you." There was no need to mention what "it" was. "But I had what seemed like good reasons."
"I talked to Omar after it," Janet said, "He told me why. It was hard to accept at first, but I understand. I don't like it and I never will, but I get it." There seemed to be no more to say, nothing left to get out in the open. Instead, they leaned back against the trees and lost themselves in the view, letting the silence do the talking for them.
"You summoned me, my Lord?"
"Yes, give the others the order, General."
"We attack Zimmeria?"
"Yes, it is time for you to have your revenge. I will protect you from their magic. Go forth and make them pay."
"With pleasure, my Lord."
Karise couldn't see, could only feel, the death happening in her city, her home. She could hear the sound of distant screams, could smell the smoke from the fires that ravaged both the Upper and Lower City.
"Karise, we must leave," Tanith said as he ran up to her, breathing hard from anger and worry, "We cannot stay here. You must get to safety."
Karise turned to Tanith, a hopeless smile on her face. "There is no safety for me, Tanith. We cannot leave here and I will not abandon my city and I will not let them take it."
His jaw tightening, Tanith reached out and slapped Karise. "Quit being foolish!"
Shocked and infuriated, Karise returned the harsh slap, brushing aside the burning sting on her cheek. "I will not be bullied by you, little brother," Karise said firmly, straightening herself, drawing her presence around her like an invincible cloak, "I will not flee to safety while something can still be done for my people."
Tanith choked on his words. "Karise, magic does nothing to these people. Somehow, they are immune to it. We cannot stop them."
Karise gave a curt nod. "Then you know what we must do."
Tanith paused before nodding in harsh acceptance and reached out for his sister's hand. "We do not have much time, then. Come, we have to make ready." Karise nodded and looked over at her desk, fingering the envelope she had left there before picking up her Scrying crystal.
A light breeze whistled through the air, rustling the leaves above them. "This is so nice," Aerin sighed, "We should do this more often." They hadn't moved in an hour, content to soak up the scenery.
Janet nodded and opened her mouth to reply when her Scrying crystal glowed brightly and she heard Karise's voice saying her name. "Karise?" Janet questioned.
There was a long pause and Janet looked over at Aerin worriedly as his own crystal glowed with the sound of Tanith's voice. "I just wanted to tell you that I love you and that I hope you can forgive me."
The feeling of dread that had rested in the back of Janet's mind came to the forefront, her heart pounding with fear. "Karise, what are you saying? What's going on? Is something wrong?"
Karise gave a short laugh that ended with what Janet thought sounded like a sob. "Do not worry, dear heart. I will take care of it. Just remember that I will always-" The crystal darkened in Janet's hand.
"Father? Father, are you there?" Aerin called, anxiety growing in his voice. His crystal glowed briefly before going dark once more. There was only one time they had seen this before.
With tears rolling down her cheeks, Karise removed her Scrying crystal and set it on the desk. "I am ready, Tanith."
Tanith's own eyes were dry, but they reflected an emotion Karise had never seen before on his face: deep regret and remorse. "Then we must hurry."
Karise nodded. "I will miss them," she whispered.
"We both will," Tanith said, "But we have no time for regrets. If we are to act, we must act now."
They raced back to the Teleport stone as fast as their horses would go; it wasn't fast enough for either of them. Once the Scrying crystals had gone dead in their hands, they knew what they were up against and how horribly unprepared Zimmeria was for it.
It took too long for them to untie their horses and mount them and took even longer to get back to the Teleport stone. Janet practically leapt off her horse when it came into sight, running up to it and pressing symbols in rapid succession.
When nothing happened, Janet turned to Aerin. "What's going on?" she almost screeched, her heart in her throat.
"I don't know, try it again," Aerin said. When Janet tried it again and nothing happened, Aerin shoved her aside and tried several other locations in the near vicinity. The closest one that opened was an hour away from Zimmeria.
Janet looked over at Aerin with dismay. "Is that the closest one?" she asked, struggling to keep from crying.
Aerin gulped. "Unfortunately. I assume that whatever's affecting the crystals is also affecting the Teleport Stones." There was no need to say who was doing it.
Janet clambered back onto her horse. "Then we need to hurry. We have no time to waste."
Karise and Tanith stalked their way through the palace from the Tower, ignoring the curious and worried stares of those they passed.
"My Queen, Tanith!" Omar called out, "Why haven't you left yet?"
Karise approached the man who had been like a grandfather to her. "My dear Omar, there is something we must do. Please, do not let anyone enter the Throne room."
Omar spluttered. "Your Majesty, what are you talking about? The city is being attacked, we must get you out."
"Omar, my place is here. Please honor my wishes."
Omar looked like he wished to say more, but he just nodded. "As you wish, my Queen." Karise smiled at him, trying to tell him with her eyes everything she wished to say, but couldn't find the voice for. She hugged him close, able to sense his confusion and fear. Before she could start crying once more, she walked away with Tanith following, never looking back.
They pushed the horses as fast as they could, the beasts already tired from the racing earlier in the day. But they rode on at the behest of their masters, giving it their all. For Aerin and Janet, it wouldn't be fast enough.
Karise drew a knife across the flesh of her palm, her face carefully schooled as pain shot up her arm. "With my blood, my life I freely give," she whispered in Old Tongue, drawing a circle around both her and Tanith with her blood.
Tanith took the knife from her and did the same, tracing his circle over hers, merging their blood and power together. "With my blood, my life I freely give," Tanith repeated, looking to Karise for the next part.
"Our souls for theirs, our lives so that they may live, our power to vanquish our enemies, given in sacrifice, taken in death." Karise reached out and grabbed Tanith's bloody hand with her own, their blood mingling together. She stared into his eyes, eyes she had known for over 80 years, and saw the readiness and willingness in them. There was no other option, no other way to save them all.
As the magic around them grew in intensity, waiting for Karise to finish the ritual that every monarch knew but had never had to use until this moment, Karise waited for Tanith's signal. Tanith nodded one final time. Karise swallowed. "Avenge me, Zimmeria," she breathed.
A bright light burst from the Palace, sweeping outward and over Zimmeria like a wave crashing over the sand. It rushed through the city, touching all. One by one, the invaders dropped like flies, dead in an instant, leaving the citizens of the city to watch with confusion as the light faded. The invading army lay silent in the streets, weapons still clutched in once-eager hands, life having fled as the light passed through them.
Omar watched in disbelief as a power only rumored to exist emanated from the Palace. In a sudden rush, the invaders were dead, killed by a ritual that was only to be used as a last resort. He buried his head in his hands as tears dripped down his cheeks, thinking of his last moments with Karise, knowing that he would never see her or Tanith alive again.
By the time Janet and Aerin reached the city, the invading army had been dead nearly an hour. Numbly, they made their way through the broken and battered city, Mages and non-Mages alike ignoring both of them in their mad rush to control the chaos. Stunned, Janet reached over from atop her horse and grabbed Aerin's hand, squeezing it tight. Aerin squeezed back, shocked into silence.
Nothing had been left untouched, they realized, as they entered the ruin of the Upper City. Broken glass and stone lay everywhere, scattered among the bodies of the dead. Janet gasped as she recognized several of the dead, disbelief still the predominant emotion as they made their way to the Palace.
They dismounted from their horses and ran into the Palace, hearts pounding in their chests. They remembered what they heard from Karise and Tanith before communication was cut off. What had happened to them? They looked in a few rooms before stopping in front of the Throne Room.
They paused before the closed doors; in all their memories, the doors had never been shut.
Looking at each other with concern, they pushed the doors open and moved inside, freezing in terror at what they saw. The broken bodies of Karise and Tanith lay in the middle of the room, limbs splayed at unnatural angles, their hands clasped in death.
"NO!" Aerin roared loudly as grief overcame him and he rushed over to their bodies, kneeling on the floor beside them. Janet stumbled along behind him, unfeeling and unable to process what she was seeing. She sunk down beside him, kneeling on broken glass. Aerin latched onto her, holding her tight across the waist. With dry eyes, Janet looked at the dead body of the woman who had become like a mother to her and all she could think was that she wasn't ready to follow in her footsteps.
Omar found Janet and Aerin still kneeling in the middle of the throne room, both of them wrapped up in their own form of grief. Glass crunching beneath his feet, Omar approached them, laying a hand on Janet's shoulder.
Janet flinched at the touch and turned her head to look at Omar. "How did this happen?" she whispered, shocking Omar with how numb she sounded.
"They sacrificed themselves," Omar said.
Janet stood up, leaving Aerin on his knees on the floor. "Why did they have to sacrifice themselves?"
"My Queen," Omar choked out, "We were invaded. No magic could touch them. They did what they had to."
Janet froze. "My Queen," she repeated in a whisper, turning to look back at Karise's body. Drawing her shoulders back, Janet vanished the glass on the floor and turned away from the scene. "Cover their bodies," she ordered, hands trembling at her side, "Prepare them for the funeral."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Omar said with an nod of his head.
Without another word, Janet stalked out of the Throne Room, glancing back at the still-sobbing Aerin. Her heart clenched at the sight of him, but she couldn't deal with comforting him at the moment anymore. With a sigh, she grabbed her Scrying crystal. "Nyla, can you hear me?"
"Yes, is something wrong, Janet?"
Yes, everything, Janet thought. "You need to come back now."
"What happened? Is Aerin alright?"
Janet gulped, struggling to hold back tears. "We were invaded, Nyla. Karise and Tanith are dead. Aerin needs you."
Janet stumbled up the stairs to the Tower, wrapped in a Concealment. She didn't care if there was work to be done, people to help, things to rebuild. Her entire world had been turned upside-down in a single instant. Things were finally getting back on track with Aerin when the rug was swept out from under her, leaving her struggling to regain her balance.
She breathed in huge gulps of air as she tried to wrap her mind around the idea that she was Queen of Zimmeria. She had yet to be crowned, but it didn't make it any less true.
Lost in thoughts of uncertainty, Janet stepped onto the landing and headed for her rooms, pausing as she saw the double doors leading to Karise's chambers. Sadness threatened to swallow her whole and all Janet wanted to do was curl up on her bed and fall asleep, but she felt drawn to Karise's rooms. Her legs carried her over and she entered, soaking up Karise's lingering presence. Janet swallowed the lump of tears in her throat; she feared if she started crying, she would never stop.
She looked around the main room, seeing Karise's spirit everywhere she looked. She moved over to the desk, fingers trailing along the smooth wood. Something on the desk caught her eye, the sunlight reflecting off its surface. As Janet focused on it, her heart sank.
On the desk, Karise's Scrying crystal lay on top of an envelope that was addressed to Janet. However catastrophic the day had been, Karise had had the presence of mind to write out her final words. With a trembling hand, Janet reached out for the envelope, scooping up both it and the crystal. Envelope clutched in her fist, Janet collapsed on the nearby armchair. She tore it open, pulled out the letter, and began to read.
"My dearest Janet," it began, "If you are reading this, then my sacrifice has already been worth it. Do not be angry with me. I knew this day was coming for quite some time. I am only saddened that I couldn't warn you. Now that I have passed on into the next life, you are now Queen. You must be strong for Zimmeria. They will need you now more than ever. You are the Akakami, you are their hope and you must be ready. And though it will be a difficult journey, I believe in you, Janet, and I will be with you always. I love you, my darling daughter."
There was more to read, but Janet couldn't bring herself to read it. Drawing her knees up to her chest, Janet buried her face in her arms. Her shoulders shook with sobs, but no tears would come.
"I might have guessed you'd be hiding out here."
Janet straightened, heart pounding with surprise. "Callista," she breathed, having forgotten all about Tanith's wife. Tears streamed down her fair skin and the grief in her eyes caused guilt to settle heavily in Janet's stomach.
"Where were you when we needed you?" Callista accused, "I believed in you, Janet. When I was a little girl, my father told me stories about the Akakami, about how she was supposed to protect all of us and never let anything bad happen to us." Callista closed her eyes to calm herself, drawing in a deep breath. "And now, thanks to you, I've lost both my parents and my husband."
Janet's breath caught in her throat. "Your…parents?"
Callista let out a bitter laugh. "Oh, don't tell me you don't know," Callista ground out, "All the dukes and duchesses were murdered before the Queen and Tanith could sacrifice themselves. The country is in disarray. None of us have anyone to turn to except you. Are you going to hide in here forever?"
Janet's brain still hadn't caught up. "No, I…" She didn't know what to say.
Callista drew herself up straight, regaining her royal bearings. "Well, aren't you going to fix it?" There was no need for Callista to explain herself. Janet thought about all the dead and dying, about her broken city, and about how she was hidden away, abandoning them when they needed her the most. She stood up without a word and headed out of Karise's chambers. "Where are you going?" Callista asked, her voice harsh, yet quiet.
"To fix it."
When Nyla arrived in Zimmeria, Omar was there waiting for her. "I'm sorry it took so long," she apologized.
Omar reached out to hug her, grateful she was fine. "It's alright, my dear. Come, Aerin needs you." Nyla nodded and followed Omar to the Throne Room, where she immediately spotted Aerin. Omar forgotten, she rushed over to her lover, eyeing the sheet-covered bodies. A wave of grief swept through her at the thought that Karise and Tanith were both dead, but she pushed it aside as she enfolded a still Aerin in her arms.
"Aerin, my love," she whispered, "It's me."
His hand clutched her forearm as he stared blankly in front of him. "It's not fair," Aerin forced out.
Nyla pressed a kiss to Aerin's temple. "No, it's not." They sat in silence, mourning the dead and contemplating the future. The road ahead of them was unclear, their futures uncertain. They would all need to be strong.
"Quick, you must come and see!"
Nyla and Aerin turned to see Christos and Nyla felt a weight lift from her heart to see her friend alive. "What is it?" Aerin asked.
"It's Janet. Come, hurry!"
Leaving Callista behind, Janet marched across the hall to the empty rooms next to Aerin's. She entered the unoccupied chambers and opened the balcony doors at the other end. The sight in front of her made her take a step back. The destruction looked different from up high.
A handful of enemy mages had been part of the invasion, bringing ruin to everything. Buildings were either toppled or set aflame, people trapped either dead or dying beneath the rubble. Both the Upper and Lower Cities were in equal despair. Most of the buildings in the Upper City were almost completely ruined, including the Academy. Only the University and the Palace lay relatively unscathed by the invasion force, which had probably decided to leave the conquest of Zimmeria's two most important buildings for last.
Janet's heart clenched. She would fix this.
Holding out her hands, she retreated deep inside herself, reaching into power reserves she had never had to use before. She concentrated on how she remembered the city before that day, the image vivid in her mind, and reached outward, casting her power over the city as she opened her eyes to watch.
Fires snuffed out at once, rock and glass flew through the air. Buildings appeared to rebuild themselves piece by piece. It was like watching time move in reverse. Sweat trickled down Janet's cheek; the effort of spreading her magic everywhere at once strained her, but she didn't dare give up. It was the least she could do for the people who believed in her.
"I will help you," a voice whispered in the back of her mind. It was sweet and gentle, soothing Janet and giving her strength. "Take from me freely, my child." Janet felt power flow into her and she turned her attentions to the Upper City, knowing it was going to be the hardest part.
And even with the extra power, Janet's body trembled with the effort, but she forced herself to stay upright and conscious. The magic of the Upper City fought her, but yielded to her in the end as the ground cleared, rubble disappeared, and structures became as they once were. Rebuilding the city seemed to take forever, but Janet knew that no more than a half hour had passed.
And finally, when the last piece of glass had been set into place, the final cornerstone of the final building secure once more, Janet let her hands drop to her side. She could hear the cheers of thousands of people, faint and distant from her position at the top floor of the Tower.
She gasped for breath as her vision swam. Her head felt both hollow and heavy, a headache spreading from her temples and resonating all the way down her spine. Nausea slammed into her and she swayed on her feet before darkness swallowed her and she knew no more.
They couldn't move for shock had robbed them of movement. They could only watch in amazement as Zimmeria became whole once more. Even though there was no bringing back the dead, having a home rebuilt was as great a comfort as any.
Aerin could feel Janet's power sweeping over the city and marveled at its strength. Just when he thought he knew the true measure of her power, she did something that raised the bar even higher. She truly deserved to be the Akakami.
Finally, when everything was finished and Aerin could no longer feel Janet's strong presence, he ran into the Palace and up to the Tower. Nyla and Christos followed, all of them worried about Janet. They had all felt the amount of power it took to rebuild Zimmeria. If Janet was still conscious, they would be surprised.
And when they found her, lying on the balcony of an unoccupied set of chambers, they were all relieved she was still alive.
Aerin brushed aside Janet's hair, cringing at how gaunt and pale she looked. "She gave everything she had," Aerin whispered.
"Did she give any of her Life Force?" Nyla asked worriedly.
Aerin pressed his fingertips to her skin and entered her mind. He sighed in relief to find her Life Force burning as strongly as it always did. "No, she did not, thank the Gods." Giving up one's Life Force was the ultimate sacrifice a Mage could make and was not something to do lightly. Laying another hand against Janet's arm, Aerin let some of his own power flow into her, relieved as the color came back into her cheeks. He turned to Nyla and Christos. "Care to make your own contribution?" he asked. Both Nyla and Christos gave over some of their power without hesitation.
Within seconds, Janet began to stir, rising out of unconsciousness. She soon opened her eyes and saw her three closest friends standing over her. "How long was I out?" she asked, remembering losing consciousness.
Aerin helped Janet to her feet. "Not too long. We found you up here only a few minutes ago."
Janet swayed a little before regaining her balance. "Good, there's more work that needs to be done."
Aerin nodded. "Yes there is, but you won't be doing any more of it today."
Outrage spread over Janet's face. "Excuse me, but there are things to prepare, things to get done. Have you forgotten that we have funeral ceremonies to prepare for?" she hissed.
Incensed, Aerin glared at her. "For the Gods' sake, Janet, you spent a huge amount of power in just this past hour. Unnecessarily, might I add. We would have all been willing to help you, but you had to do it all by yourself out of some mistaken sense of obligation and guilt. For my sake, as your healer and Lord Protector, you will rest or we will force you."
Janet pulled a face, remembering all the times she had uttered similar words when she was the Chief Medical Officer at the SGC. "Fine, you win. I don't have the energy to fight you right now," she sighed, "Will you at least get things started? With the funerals?"
Aerin swallowed, wishing he didn't have to bury the last of his immediate family. "Yes, I will begin the process. And tomorrow, when you are rested, you will be there with me to conduct the funerals. And then, we will begin preparing for your coronation."
In the end, Aerin decided to honor all those who had fallen in the invasion in one large ceremony. It seemed as if all of Zimmeria had gathered in the plains outside the city walls to bid one last farewell to those they had lost. In the center of the crowd, a small clearing had been made, containing 9 funeral pyres lined up in a row.
In the middle lay the pyre that held Karise's body, Tanith's at her right, and her cousin, Lord Gregor, and his wife at her left. The rest of the pyres held the other 6 ruling pairs, one for each duke and duchess who had been killed the day before.
Janet stood before the middle pyre, a torch in her hand. Behind her, the High Priestess spoke the funeral rites. "…and though the Destroyer claims your souls in this lifetime, may the Creator bless you and give you chance to be born again. And with these flames, we cleanse your bodies of mortal sin and set you free in innocence." With that as her cue, Janet stepped forward, setting the flames of the torch to the pitch in front of her. Soon, the whole pyre caught alight, engulfing Karise's body in fire. The other pyres lit up in succession, Aerin following after Janet to light Tanith's pyre.
On Janet's other side, Gregor's daughter, Kaylie, stepped forward to cremate the bodies of her parents. As Gregor's only child, it was Kaylie's responsibility as his heir to perform the ritualistic burning. Janet's heart went out to the young girl as the smell of burning human flesh surrounded her.
The smell threatened to choke her, but Janet remained steadfast, watching as Karise's body turned to ash, silent tears dripping down her cheeks. Aerin came up beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
Together, they watched the burning, both of the mourning the loss of two people who died well before their time. There were no words uttered between the new leaders of Zimmeria, neither of them wanting to destroy the solemnity of the moment, as they dwelled on the heavy burden Karise and Tanith had left behind. A broken people, a country on the verge of war, their way of life slowly crumbling at their feet, and the both of them at the forefront of it all. It seemed forever until only embers remained. The smell of burning flesh had long disappeared and people began to leave in silence.
Aerin squeezed Janet's shoulder. "Come," he said in a voice thick with tears, "You must begin the ritual."
Janet nodded. "You'll…I mean, Daniel and the others…" Janet said, struggling with the words.
Aerin understood. "Yes, after I help you prepare, I'll see to it myself."
Janet shivered in the dampness of the chamber, the cold soaking through the thin white shift she wore. Despite the cold, Janet felt every muscle tense in anticipation. She had sat there for what felt like hours in a room with no light, no windows, and only the one door she used to enter. There was no furniture, only a bare, stone floor.
Every minute that passed by made Janet feel like the walls were slowly closing in on her and, though she knew someone was watching out for her outside the door, it didn't alleviate her claustrophobia or her fears. No one was quite sure what the rituals were for a new monarch and the uncertainty worried Janet.
With nothing to fear but the worst, all she could do was sit and wait as she had been, hoping she would know when it began. But when it began, there was no missing it. She felt like she was falling through eternity as powerful magic swept through her.
Light surrounded her briefly before she shattered into a million pieces, pain igniting her senses as an unseen entity forcefully sifted through the pieces of her fragmented soul. And then, she began to scream.
Aerin sat unmoving on the chair Omar had provided for him. For well over a day he had sat at his post, waiting for the door in front of him to open and signal the end of a ritual no Monarch had ever talked about. Whatever was happening in there to Janet, Aerin was unable to protect her from it. The knowledge that this was part of his own test did nothing to alleviate his worries.
He rubbed his tired face with his hand, not daring to fall asleep, and hoped that Daniel and the others had gotten his message. Before he came to watch over Janet, Aerin's duty had been to inform all the other kingdoms of the upcoming coronation and extend the invitation for the event. The only country left off the list, expectedly, had been Xarnac.
Instead, Aerin braved a trip on his own through the Stargate to fulfill Janet's wishes, only to find that SG-1 was off-world elsewhere. Leaving the letter he had been sent to deliver with General Hammond, Aerin had returned to Zimmeria to wait and watch.
And how long he had been waiting, Aerin had no idea. There were no windows in the bowels of the Palace. The heart of Zimmeria, the base of its magical power, lay beneath layers of rock. Its strong presence had driven someone thousands of years ago to center a country around it. It approved of all the monarchs who had even ruled Zimmeria and for the ones who tried without the approval of the country itself, they hadn't lived long enough to tell what had happened. Zimmeria was an entity in its own right and for that reason, no usurper had ever been able to hold on to the throne.
Still, it didn't stop Aerin from wishing that the center of Zimmeria's power was somewhere a little warmer, where he and Janet could get close enough to it without catching hypothermia. His own magic didn't work this close to the heart of Zimmeria, too much interference. So, instead of warming the air around him, Aerin sat with his arms crossed over his chest, wearing a thick winter coat even though summer wasn't yet over.
Eventually, footsteps behind him broke the monotony of silence and Aerin turned around to see Omar walking towards him with a tray in his hands.
"I figured you could use something warm in your stomach," Omar said, "And I thought you should know that we have visitors. Word just came to me that Janet's friends from her home world stepped through the Stargate not minutes ago."
"It's about time," Aerin muttered, "How long has it been, anyway?" Aerin nodded in the direction of the door to clarify his question.
"You've been down here for almost a whole day," Omar answered, "And I see that we do not yet have our new queen."
Aerin took the tray from Omar's hands and found a bowl of stew. Digging into it hungrily, he replied, "Well, I hear these things take time."
Omar sighed. "I do hope things are going well in there."
Aerin swallowed a mouthful of stew. "You and me both."
"Ah, the Akakami. I have so longed to meet you."
Awareness rushed back into Janet. "Who's there?" she called out. A figure appeared before her and she gasped as she recognized the face. "Ulmeraan."
His face registered confusion before he scowled. "I see you already know who I am. Pity, as I'd hope to surprise you."
"What are you doing here?" Janet asked, even though she didn't know where "here" was.
"I just thought I'd come to congratulate you on your ascension to Zimmeria's throne," he said, his tone mocking, "Too bad about the previous royal pair. Suicide, right?"
Janet balled her hands into fists, gritting her teeth in anger. "They sacrificed themselves so that their people could live, something you wouldn't understand."
"Sacrifice is merely wasting your life in the misapprehended belief that it will make a difference," Ulmeraan said, smoothing his robe against his chest, "I abhor sacrifice. However, it has brought you to me, so I have no cause to complain."
Janet narrowed her eyes. "What?"
Ulmeraan's smile sent shivers down Janet's spine. "Well, I cannot deal directly in the physical world, but this is not the physical world. Or, at least, the physical world you're used to." He approached her and extended a hand, running a finger across her cheek.
Janet struggled to pull away, but found that she couldn't even blink. "As you can see," Ulmeraan continued, "I am the master in this domain. I can do whatever I wish to you. But, where is the fun in that?" Suddenly, Janet could move again, but it brought her no comfort. "You might want to run while you can. I may be generous, but even I have my limits." And, as Janet turned to run into the distance, she could hear the distant echo of his laughter follow her.
"How long has she been in there?"
Aerin turned and saw Daniel approaching. "A day," Aerin said, looking around, "Where are the others?"
"Omar would only let me come down," Daniel said, carrying a single chair. He set it down next to Aerin and sat down, arms folded over his chest for warmth, "He said something about delicate energies and too many people disrupting it?"
Aerin smiled. "That's a long story," he said.
"I think we have time," Daniel said, eyeing the door with poorly concealed worry.
Janet panted for breath as she threw another look over her shoulder. She couldn't see anyone behind her, but that didn't mean he wasn't there. Fog swirled around her as she ran, nebulous and thick. Colors, indistinct, swirled within it, blending seamlessly into one another. The haze it created confused Janet; for all she knew, she ran in circles.
"Where have you gone, my pretty?" Ulmeraan's voice called out, echoing around her, "You cannot not hide from me forever."
Panic forced Janet's heart into her throat. She didn't know how much power she had in this world, wherever it was; she didn't know if she would be able to fight him off. Could she still die, if she wasn't in her own reality? Janet's thoughts on the subject were cut short as the air cleared and the ground disappeared beneath her feet.
Janet let out a scream as she fell through the air. Below her, she barely noticed the mountainous crags that surrounded her; all she could focus on was the ground, far beneath her, coming up to meet her at an astounding rate. She closed her eyes, praying for help, for anything to get her out of it.
Her scream choked in her throat as pain rippled along her back, exploding across her spine. It felt as if her skeleton were crawling out of her skin and it was all Janet could do to not be sick from pain. When it finally ended a lifetime later, Janet felt herself tugged up harshly, her skin pulling in response.
Her descent slowed, the air calming around her, and Janet looked up to see what had happened only to freeze in shock. Tawny feathers caressed her cheek with downy softness and Janet couldn't keep back the hysterical laugh that the sight induced.
She had grown wings. In her hysterical shock, the wings, which had begun keeping her aloft, suddenly folded back up and Janet began to fall once more. Panicked, Janet rushed to control the unfamiliar appendages, trying to remember anything she might know about bird flight. To her immense relief, the wings spread once more, catching a wind thermal as they steadied her in the air.
For a few shaky minutes, Janet struggled to keep control of the new addition and found that if she didn't think, it made the whole experience easier. Trying to ignore the sensations of the wings working above her, Janet focused on her surroundings. Wherever she was, it was dry and arid. Even at the height she was at, she could feel the air swallow the moisture from inside her mouth. Gulping, Janet focused her gaze on the horizon, trying to figure what kind of land she had been forced into. In the distance she spotted the only signs of civilization.
The temple stood out starkly against the landscape, black obsidian gleaming beneath the mid-afternoon sun. Janet aimed for the temple and, after a few more mishaps, landed at the foot of it. Her landing stirred up dust on the ground, coating her bare feet in dirt. Gravel scrapped the bottom of Janet's feet, but she gave it no mind as she stared up at the huge edifice in front of her.
Now that she stood in front of it, she could feel power roll off of it in waves. Turning to see if Ulmeraan had followed her to this place, and knowing she probably couldn't even spot him if he had, Janet slowly side-stepped her way into, only to stumble as the unfamiliar weight of the wings at her back caught her off guard.
Standing still, Janet closed her eyes and willed the wings to disappear, but they refused to budge. Resigning herself to slow going, Janet started moving again, this time much slower, balancing her weight as she crossed the large threshold.
As she entered the receiving room, she was struck at just how empty the room was. It appeared to be the only room of the huge building, completely unadorned. She had to strain her eyes just in order to see the ceiling, the blackness of the stone swallowing all light provided from the temple's single opening, the one she had come through.
And, ahead of her on the far wall, was the only other doorway in the room. A quick glance behind her gave Janet the full scope of her options: go back outside and be forced to face Ulmeraan, or go through that door and maybe find a way to escape him. The choice was easy.
She moved forward into the temple and stopped in front of the closed door.
"Beware ye all who enter for Death lies within," she read, fingering the inscription carved into the door. A shiver ran down her spine. She pulled her hand away, assessing the door, and took a deep breath before leaning forward to open the door. It grated against the ground, rumbling as it swiveled on stiff hinges.
Finally, Janet pushed it open far enough to allow her encumbered form in and she slipped through to the best of her ability, cursing to herself as the wings caught on the edges of the opening. Inside the door, the power she had felt from the outside magnified tenfold and Janet felt herself drawn to it.
Holding her hand out, she let a ball of Magelight form; it was weak and shaky, not at all what Janet was used to producing, but it was enough to light her way through the dark. The hallway she found herself in was no wider than she was tall and it seemed to go on forever, leading her deeper and deeper into the bowels of the strange and out-of-place building. The air around her grew heavy and stifling, air that hadn't been stirred in quite some time.
Janet didn't know how long she had been going down, but she realized that she was slowly heading towards somewhere with light. Soon, she was able to walk without the aid of her Magelight. It felt as if she were walking into a forge, her hair hanging limp in the heavy heat. She wiped sweat from her brow, but stopped mid-swipe as the walls suddenly opened up around her.
The area in front of her, instead of confined, was now cavernous. The walls, still as black as the rest of the temple, glowed from the light emanating from the gigantic structure in front of her. The hallway ended into a metal catwalk that stretched out towards what Janet could only describe as an upside-down pyramid. It was made of the same black stone as the walls around her, but white lines snaked down the face, turning in random, 90 degree angles that were centered around a large white, square plane as wide as the catwalk Janet stood on.
Intrigued and drawn forward, Janet approached the structure. The white plane was not, as Janet thought, made of the same material. As she peered into it, she could see that it wasn't white at all. It was clear, allowing her to see through into thick fog. Beyond, a shape hovered and the fog started to clear just a little, almost allowing Janet to see what lay within.
"How dare you!" Air and fire whipped around her in a sudden frenzy, burning her skin. Janet tried to throw up a shield, but her magic wouldn't respond. She shielded her eyes with her hands and turned around to find Ulmeraan standing behind her, a look of fury on his face.
Janet screamed as the pain increased; she was a helpless victim, stuck in a realm over which she had no control. Ulmeraan pulled her towards him to where he stood at the base of the catwalk.
"You think you can destroy me here?" he hissed, holding her by the neck, "I am a god compared to you." With one hand, he grabbed one of her newly formed wings and pulled. Janet screamed once more, nausea from pain rolling through her as skin tore, bones broke, and arteries spewed open. Unchecked tears streamed down her face, dripping onto Ulmeraan's forearm. With a cruel smile, he held out the detached appendage in front of Janet's face before tossing it over the catwalk. Blood poured from Janet's back and she began to feel light-headed.
"What do you want?" she sobbed. Ulmeraan didn't respond as he ripped off the other wing. Janet must have blacked out from pain and shock, because when she was somewhat coherent again, she found herself on the ground and Ulmeraan standing frozen in front of her as the most beautiful woman she had ever seen approached him.
"You have no right to be here, Ulmeraan," the woman spoke, her voice strangely familiar, "You have interfered where you do not belong. Be gone from this plane." Ulmeraan had no chance to speak before he disappeared, banished back to wherever he came from. Janet didn't move, didn't speak as the woman approached her.
"My dear child," she whispered, a motherly smile on her face as she cupped Janet's cheek, "What has he done to you?"
"Who...who are you?" Janet forced out. Pain rippled through her entire body, making it difficult to concentrate.
"Someone who's been watching over you," the woman responded, "Everything will be alright. Now, go. Become the Queen everyone's been waiting for."
"Yes. Now, sleep dear heart. When you wake up, everything will be better." Janet obeyed. Her eyelids felt heavy and it took no effort to close them. And as she fell into unconsciousness, she was lulled by the sound of a woman singing a gentle lullaby.
It had been three days since Janet entered the chamber, three days without a sound from behind the nondescript wooden door deep in the bowels of Zimmeria's castle. SG-1 had taken shifts sitting with Aerin, bringing him down food and keeping him company while he sat his vigil, waiting for Janet to emerge from within.
It was Daniel's turn to sit with him, both of them quiet as they stared ahead. And, suddenly, without any warning, the door opened with a soft snick. Daniel didn't think he had ever seen a man move so fast as he watched Aerin move for the door.
Daniel wasn't far behind, however, and he looked over Aerin's shoulder to peer into the room beyond. The sight that greeted them made them gasp. Blood spattered the walls and floor, centered around an unconscious Janet.
"Oh Gods," Aerin breathed as he rushed forward and knelt beside Janet. He placed his hands on her shoulders, inspecting her for wounds as Daniel crouched next to them. And when they caught sight of the two, diagonal gaping wounds on Janet's back, they stared at each other in horror, wondering what could have happened.
Janet woke up in her own bed, silken sheets draped over her. Bleary, she opened her eyes and looked around her. Next to her, asleep, lay Daniel. He lay atop of the covers, but someone must have draped a quilt over him while they both slept.
"It's good to see you're awake."
Janet looked to see Aerin entering the room. "What happened?"
Aerin sat down at the edge of her bed, taking her hand in his. "I was hoping you could tell me. What do you remember?"
Janet closed her eyes and thought back. "Last I remember, I was sitting in the chamber, waiting for it to start. Did I pass?"
"You wouldn't be alive if you hadn't," Aerin answered, squeezing Janet's hand.
"Then what has you so worried looking?"
Aerin looked at Janet, his brow furrowed in confusion. "You truly don't remember?" When Janet shook her head, Aerin continued. "We found you unconscious in the chamber with the walls covered in blood. You had two large slanted wounds on your back. Daniel said it looked like an angel who had its wings ripped off."
The thought turned Janet's stomach, but no images came to mind. "I don't remember," she said with a sigh. She lay back, letting her thoughts run away from her for several minutes, her voice lilting as she hummed absently.
"What are you humming?" Aerin asked.
Janet chuckled and shrugged. "I don't know, it just keeps playing in my mind." She sighed, her humming stopped, and looked over at Aerin. "So, now what?"
Aerin smoothed Janet's hair away from her face. "Now, we coronate you."
Janet sighed as she looked in the mirror; the dress she wore was almost identical to the one she wore when she had been named Queen-in-Waiting, except it was silver instead of white.
It had been two days since she emerged, bloodied, from the Test, and she was still disturbed that she couldn't remember what had happened to her in that room. Her nightmares, not silenced by Daniel's presence next to her at night, allowed her glimpses of what she had gone through. The ground rushing up at her, a long hallway, black obsidian, all images that made no sense. There was nothing to piece them together, no context to place them in. Aerin had tried to help her recapture the images, but nothing had helped.
She turned away from her image in the mirror and stood up, pacing the small room. She was in an antechamber, not far from the Throne room, where she and Aerin had found the bodies of Karise and Tanith.
She gulped down the lump that had formed in her throat at the thought, ruminating over and over again about how she wasn't ready for this, that it was still Karise's roll to fill. She began to panic, panting with slight hysterics. She placed her hands on her forehead, willing herself to breathe. But she hadn't been able to calm down and when a knock sounded at her door, she let out a surprised yelp.
"Come in," she said with a voice shaky with emotion.
Daniel popped his head in. "Everything ok in here?" he asked as Janet waved him in. He shut the door behind him and took the time to focus on her. Despite the obvious discomfort she was in emotionally, she looked stunning in her royal finery. His heart swelled with pride, love, and worry for the woman in front of him and he wondered just how many more shocks she could take, knowing that he would be there for her for all of them.
"Yeah, I'm just freaking out," Janet admitted.
Daniel walked over to her and enveloped her in a hug. "Hey, it'll be ok," he whispered as she leaned into him, burying herself in his chest. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head, careful not to muss up her hair.
"How do you know that?" she asked, her tone uncertain and Daniel knew it took all her strength to rein in her emotions.
"Because you are the strongest person I know, Janet. If anyone can get through this, it's you."
She pulled away from him, still remaining in the circle of his arms, and smiled at him. It was shaky, but the sight relieved Daniel. "Thanks for thinking that. I hope I don't let you down."
"Never," Daniel breathed as he leaned down to kiss her. Janet leaned into the kiss, letting her soul fly along side his for a few moments before letting herself crash down back to earth.
"I'm taking it I only have a few more moments before the ceremony?" she asked.
"Yeah, Aerin told me to come and let you know. He'll be in to get you when it's time. I should go and take my place in the audience."
Janet nodded and she leaned up to give him one more kiss. He smiled down at her reassuringly before turning to go. "Thanks. For being here for me," she said as he reached for the door.
He turned back to look at her. "Always."
Any emotional stability Janet had regained in the moments before the ceremony disappeared the moment Omar placed the crown atop her head. This wasn't hers, shouldn't have to be. It was too soon, too sudden. Tears streaked down her face, dripping onto expensive fabric. The weight on her brow felt like the weight of the universe borne down upon her shoulders.
The cavernous space of the throne room, filled with the hushed breathing of hundreds, echoed around her, roaring in her ears. They were all there for her, to take comfort in her presence. They needed her to be strong for them. Who would be strong for her? Who would help her shoulder the burden?
The air around her hummed with power. Karise had often spoken of the connection she felt with the earth, the air. The Queen of Zimmeria wasn't just connected to her subjects; she was tied to the land in ways no one else was, not even her Protector. The new sensation filled Janet to the core, enveloping her. Every blade of grass, every tree, every mountain side was now familiar to her, speaking to her in ways she hadn't been able to imagine as her awareness spread everywhere at once. Janet took comfort in it, knowing Karise had experienced the same thing.
To her right, Aerin looked at her with sorrowful eyes. 'I wish this could have happened under better circumstance,' his eyes said. Janet couldn't have agreed more, turning her gaze from his. In all the ways Janet had imagined this pivotal moment, she had never pictured Karise not being there to pass on her title.
Omar stood on the throne platform, standing between the places where Karise and Tanith would have been, representing both the fallen monarch and her Lord Protector in a ceremony that should have been filled with happiness. Omar drew in a deep breath and began to sing the closing lines of the day, words that he had heard for the first time almost 300 years ago.
His smooth tenor carried across the Throne Room; to Janet, Old Tongue had never sounded more beautiful. He sung the words of good luck, wishing the new monarch and her protector an auspicious reign and a long, healthy life, drawing his performance to a close a few moments later.
The applause that should have followed was absent as Omar bid Janet to step forward, moving aside so she could take her position on the high-backed chair that had served as Karise's seat of power for 50 years. With slow, trembling steps, Janet ascended to the throne platform, sweeping her long skirts behind her. She didn't dare look up at the crowd surrounding her as she lowered herself onto the gold-worked chair.
The unfamiliar magic of a new monarch interacted with the powerful ancient magic imbued in the gold tendrils that radiated outward from the throne like rays of light, sending shockwaves of power radiating outward. The crowd gasped as the throne and, by extension, Zimmeria reacted to Janet's presence, accepting her as its human representative.
Janet gathered the strength to look at the crowd around her, her eyes locking Daniel in the front row to her right. She caught his sad gaze and couldn't bear to look at him for more than a few moments. The happiness she felt with him couldn't overthrow the stress she found herself under. Janet longed to let it all go, to do what she wanted instead of what was expected of her.
But the still unfamiliar connection she now felt with Zimmeria pulled at her. Janet knew she would always be connected with the country that had become her home. She relied on Zimmeria as much as Zimmeria relied on her, her life force forever intertwined with the magic of her home.
Janet lifted her head once more to look out at the crowd of people who came to see her crowned, who came to be reassured that the royal line would continue in spite of the horrific events of the past week. They all looked to her for hope, a hope bolstered by the knowledge that their new queen was also the Akakami, the one who would be their ultimate savior, who would rescue them from the dark times ahead.
Janet reached out with her hand, Aerin taking it without a word. Janet was happy that they resolved their issues before everything else exploded. Zimmeria needed the Akakami and her Lord Protector to be the image of solidarity. With Aerin next to her, Janet felt like she could be all everyone asked of her. He would be her strength, despite his own grief, and in turn she would be there for him.
A quick glance over at Daniel showed him looking at her, his face a mask of support. From the brief conversation she had with him earlier, Janet knew she had Daniel's support, that he would still love her despite the new demands on her time. She wouldn't have as much time for him now, especially with the up-coming war. He didn't doubt her love for him and he resolved to help her in anyway that he could, loving her just as much.
Janet allowed Aerin to help her to her feet and the entire audience rose with her, ready to bow to Zimmeria's newest monarch.
"I present to you Queen Janet and her Protector, Lord Aerin!" Omar announced, inviting the audience's applause. The delegation from Earth applauded their support, making more than their fair share of noise. Janet sent them a smile, grateful that she could still count of the friends she had back on Earth for support.
The feast at the end of the ceremony was a somber affair, attended to only by heads of state and honored guests. Janet had sat at the head of the table next to Aerin, presiding over the event with the all the dignity and grace she could muster. And, after it ended, she pulled Omar aside, Aerin and SG-1 joining her in the final moments of the evening.
"Omar, now that I have been crowned, I have one very important thing that I need you to do," Janet said.
Omar bowed his head. "Whatever you wish, my Queen, it will be yours."
"Zimmeria is going to war with an army that I will lead myself. You will be regent in my stead."
"But, Janet…" Omar trailed off, panic gripping his heart, "If you die, who will reign?"
Janet sighed, looking sad as she spoke. "I don't know, Omar, but I can't concern myself with that now. I am the Akakami. It is time for me to start acting like it."