"How are you feeling?" Arcon quietly shut the door behind him as he joined me on the front steps of the cabin. There were two other groups sharing the small wooden house with us, but we hadn't yet crossed paths.
I shrugged, hands tightening around the hot tea one of the soldiers had brought me.
"I killed Dul," I muttered.
The air was comforting, and I turned to catch Arcon's gaze, but he was staring straight forward with no sign of emotion on his face.
"That you did."
"It feels so unreal."
He turned his face to me, eyes focused on my chin, "Is that so bad?"
I gazed into the recesses of my tea, as if the answer would be floating within the contents.
"I don't know," the cup touched my closed lips, hot water and leaves begging for entry, but I couldn't drink, and instead lowered the cup back to my lap.
Arcon was silent next to me, eyes closed, face tilted up to the soothing breeze and warm sunlight. The day was too nice for the events which had unfolded.
"Is it true? What Lanya said?" he looked at me when I spoke, "that we're all to go back to Archosaur?"
"It is. We have become valuable assets and important people. Our lives now mean something, and the Elders have decided to keep us close. They also want us around in case they need our help," the air smirked, "not that they would admit to that."
I sighed, setting the cup on the step and leaning back on my elbows, "When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow morning, so I would pack tonight."
I rolled my eyes, "I don't have anything to pack. Two outfits, that's all. I'm not Aani."
I bit my lip as the air froze, then puffed out in small rolls of laughter.
I shook my head, "I didn't mean to say that."
"It is okay, Xeria. It was funny, and true. Aani would have laughed."
She really would have; I gave a small smile. Her memory shouldn't bring me pain, it should bring me happiness.
"I miss her."
"We all do, Xeria."
And without meaning to, before I realized what I was doing, I leaned my head against Arcon's shoulder.
I was immediately surrounded by a surprised and awkward breeze; my face flushed. But I didn't pull away, and instead waited the awkwardness out, waited for my cheeks to turn back to my pale complexion, then stood.
"I guess I'll go pack now."
I turned and flung the door open, hearing Arcon call out What about your tea? A second before the door slammed shut.
"This new pack is awesome," Solm was exploring all the various pockets on the packs we had been supplied with, "There's a spot for almost all my weapons. Well," he cocked a brow, "the ones I won't be carrying on my person." He patted his hip.
I rolled my eyes, "You're like a girl."
He raised a finger, "A sexy girl who can kick ass as well as she can spank it," and wiggled a brow.
Churl was looking over at us with disdain, having finished his packing quickly since he had joined us with only the items on his back.
"Well I'm done," I kicked the bag under my bed, "I can't wait to get to Archosaur and enjoy the city as a tourist, instead of a criminal."
Solm's smile widened, "And take a nice hot bath, with the lovely bathing wenches."
"Oh Pan Gu," I pressed a hand to my forehead, "I should have turned you over to Lanya when I had the chance."
Solm feigned insult and pouted, "But who would entertain you with his striking charm and witty disposition?"
I plopped down on my bed, "It'll be nice to be in a city, with people who aren't trying to kill me. A bath would be nice too, and I'd love to get someone to teach me sword fighting. Arcon taught me a bit, and before him—" my voice cut off.
Solm looked at me with concern, then shrugged, "I could always teach you a bit. Swords aren't really my forte, but if you wanna learn anything else… Of course, we'll easily be able to find you a sword master. It's a Mage teacher that we'll have trouble with."
I shook my head, "No magick training. Not after what happened when the Oracle tried to train me. I think I have a good system going; when in doubt, blow myself up."
Solm laughed, "It would help with that annoying high pitched sound I keep hearing."
I raised a brow, "What high pitched sound?"
"There it is!"
I frowned at him, "Go to Hell."
It was then that Churl decided to interrupt, clearing his throat before he did so, "Mage Xeria, Prince Solm, please excuse me for the night. I wish to speak with my fellow Barbarians about all that has occurred."
I nodded, "I know Arcon filled you in on the whole Wraith and Earthguard thing, but can you keep the Earthguard a secret? It's bad enough I told all the Elders about them."
Churl nodded, "Understood, young Mage."
Solm and I watched him exit, then the Tideborn turned to me, "Yeah, I was kinda surprised to find out you told them about the Earthguard."
I shrugged, "I didn't have a choice, really. They need to understand. The Earthguard have kept themselves a secret for far too long."
A light, musical voice floated to my ears from behind, "Now you sound like Edrow."
I spun, taking a step backwards toward Solm as I did so, sensing him clamp a hand around whatever was sheathed at his waist. Then recognition sank in, and I gasped, "Salvation!"
She smiled lovingly at us, like a mother would smile at her children, "Hello Xeria," she inclined her head to Solm, "Prince Solm."
"What are you doing here?" he asked, releasing his grip.
She turned to me, brows raised, "Xeria has told others about our existence."
I blushed, "I, uh, I," coughed, and looked away.
"She had to," Solm offered, "Like she was saying, it's time our Elders have all the information. Dul summoned the Black Thorn into our Council meeting and our Elders were overpowered. Two—The Archosaur and Elf Elders—didn't make it, and all our Seals were compromised. Edrow has collected them all, and who knows what he is now capable of. Whatever his and the Black Thorn's plan, I'm thinking it's happening soon."
"That still was no reason to go back on your promise to my Araziel that you wouldn't give away our secret."
I stepped forward, "I understand, and I'm sorry. But we are falling behind in this war. We need to come up with a strategy. Won't the Earthguard come forward and help?"
"Not until it is their time."
Solm placed a hand on my shoulder, "It is time. We need your people."
Salvation sighed, music notes against my ears, "They will not help yet."
"Then can you tell us anything that can help? Has Araziel or any of your Mystics picked up on a new trail?"
The Lady in White looked at me sorrowfully, "Nothing that would help you, Mage Xeria. But they watched as you slayed Elder Dul, and for that they send their praise."
"Praise?" I frowned, "Praise? Is that supposed to do me any good?"
"Xeria," Solm tightened his fingers around my shoulder, "remain calm."
"How can I remain calm? Edrow is out there with his evil little—big—society and all the Seals and even though we outnumbered them, in the end they somehow defeated us!"
"I unfortunately bare no new information," Salvation's voice echoed sorrow, "but I do wish to know all that has occurred. We know Mage Xeria slayed Elder Dul, and we know of the battle that occurred in the sky. Is there anything else, besides the fact that the secret of the Earthguard has been uncovered?"
I rolled my eyes, forgetting I was dealing with the daughter of Pan Gu. The Pan Gu.
"Only a few people know," Solm pointed out, "and they are keeping it a secret from the rest."
I nodded, "Arcon made sure of it."
"Then is there anything else?"
I bit my lip, thinking.
"The Seals," Solm spoke up, "Edrow must have given Dul the two Earthguard Seals as well, because he was wielding all three."
"Impossible," Salvation replied immediately, "Only someone with Earthguard blood in their veins can wield any of the Seals not assigned to their race."
"Arcon said that maybe the Earthguard Seals were usable by every race, just as the Earthguard can use any race's Seal. Like a reverse effect."
Salvation shook her head sadly in my direction, "That is not the fact, Xeria," then turned back to Solm, "Are you sure he wielded all three?"
"Well," his eyes darted to me, "I wasn't there."
Her shimmering gaze fixed itself on me and I nodded firmly, "All three were on his staff, and he called upon all their powers. I saw it. Lightening and fire and summons."
Salvation seemed to consider a moment in silence, then closed her eyes in thought, "I do not know how this is possible. When I return I will speak of it to my Araziel and we will see what we can learn."
I exchanged a look with Solm, "So there is no explanation?"
The three of us stood in silence (although, I guess stood wasn't really the right word for what Salvation was doing, hovering in place like that) before Salvation spoke again.
"Is there anything else I should bring back with me?"
Solm shook his head, "I don't think so. At least, nothing that would concern the Earthguard."
"Very well then, I shall be saying good-bye. But not, I hope, for long," she smiled at us and then shimmered away, bursting into twinkling lights and fading into the shadows.
I fell back with my arms spread, bouncing slightly as my body came into contact with my mattress. It was softer then I was used to, and some part of me was excited to see what Archosaur offered.
"Well, that's that," Solm sat himself next to me, "at least you didn't get grounded for telling on them."
I laughed, "Secretive bunch. I wonder if they'll even know when their time comes."
"Yeah, it would suck if it came and they were just sitting at home all la, la, la, any day now."
I snorted, "When I get to Archosaur I think I'm gonna steal your idea and take a nice, hot bath."
"With the wenches."
I swung my pillow at his face and small feathers puffed out.
"Ow! Those are hard, you know."
I tucked the pillow under my head, "Oh, so hard," I said sarcastically.
"No wenches then?"
"Maybe a few."
He laughed, falling back next to me and shoving his head onto the leftovers of my pillow.
"And then after I wash off all this dirt from the last… however the hell many days, I'm going to stuff my gut. Boiled chicken and spit-roasted pig and maybe some snake if I can find any. Do they have snake in Archosaur?"
Solm shrugged against me, "Never been there."
"Snake would be nice. Oh, and maybe some charred sea turtle. Oh Pan Gu, Arcon would hate me. He doesn't eat meat," I smiled at the thought, "I suppose some onions and turnips would also taste good."
"Is food all you think about? You never shut up about it at the banquet we had for Rukki's coronation."
I licked my lips, "I've never eaten the way I've just described. And speaking of Rukki, didn't he lead your army into Archosaur recently?"
"Ah great. He did. I forgot about that."
"Well," I elbowed him, "maybe he won't notice our arrival."
"Notice the arrival of the Mage who killed traitor Dul, the Barbarian who led the Untamed back to assist, the Elf who saved the other Elders, and the Prince of the Tideborn? We'll be lucky if we don't have to walk in some sort of parade."
I laughed, "Look at you, always thinking the worst."
"Maybe the worst in your eyes," he tossed his arms back, bending his elbows to tuck his hands under his neck, "but for me… think of all the wenches!"
Sleep evaded me for most of the night; I was both nervous and excited for our journey to Archosaur come morning. I would actually get to enjoy the city this time, but I still feared something might go wrong. Here I was, after being considered a traitor for weeks, welcomed back with honor and praise. They trusted me. I just hoped it would last, and not crumble away beneath my feet.
Most Elders were returning to their own cities come morning, planning to send their top Generals and soldiers to Archosaur, but keeping enough around to protect the citizens.
Those in the surrounding smaller towns would be collected into the major cities, and housed in hotels or with volunteers for safety. No one knew what Edrow's next move was, or when the Black Thorn would attack, or if the Wraiths were going to show up around the next corner, but everyone assumed it would be sooner rather than later, and preparations were to be made.
Luckily I was excused from the politics and planning, although Arcon, Churl, and Solm would be attending all the meetings, along with Lanya and her twin stalkers. Which basically meant, as much as I was a hero for killing Dul, they pinned it as a simple lucky accident and nothing more.
I was fine with that, I guess, since I could care less about most of the things they talked about, and I had Solm to fill me in on everything that Arcon and Churl wouldn't.
When I finally fell asleep it felt like mere minutes before Arcon was shaking me awake, tossing me a clean pair of clothes and gathering his own belongings together. I changed quickly behind the rice paper divider, my eyes sticky from sleep and my mind groggy. I shoved my night clothes into my pack and clasped it, tossing it over my back and grabbing the container I had been given for water.
I tagged along with Solm to the waste house, so we could do our business, then to the wash house where we splashed water on our faces and filled up our containers for the long journey.
Arcon and Churl were waiting for us outside the cabin when we returned, fully dressed and ready to go, and I rubbed my eyes hard since I was having trouble focusing. The sun was rising now, more then when Arcon had roused me, and I had to squint slightly in order to see where we were going.
I could see the groups dispersing in different directions, some mounting land creatures and others mounting sky creatures, Elves unfurling wings and Human Mages enchanting different weapons to work as flyers.
"Are we distance shrinking there?" I asked Arcon.
The air shook its head, "There are too many of us and too much to carry for us to Distance Shrink. But Archosaur is not far; a quarter of a day's travel to the bridge, and another day and a half's journey to the gates."
"Are you serious? You consider that not far?"
"Regardless Xeria, the group we are traveling with has flying mounts and such; therefore, it will be considerably less."
I furrowed my brow, "Then why didn't you open with that. Jeez."
He raised a brow, "Shall we embark now?"
I looked around me and noticed figures rising into the air.
"What about Churl and Solm?"
"Churl will travel with the group going by land mounts, in his animal form, and Solm will, of course, be joining us. One of us can carry you. Would you like it to be me?"
I eyed his outstretched hand, wondering if I should take the opportunity to let him carry me (even though I didn't want him to!) or the opportunity to turn him down and laugh in his face.
"Uh, sure," I took his hand and he swung me up, unfurling his wings and lifting us into the air. We hovered in place, waiting for the signal to take off, and Solm came up next to us with a smile, his wings nothing more than glowing outlines.
"Churl's letting three Blademasters ride him. It's quite an entertaining site."
I laughed, "I can imagine."
The air seemed to frown and Arcon shifted his hold on me roughly, causing me to grunt at him with annoyance.
And then we were all off, heading towards the great city that I had not been able to appreciate last time I was there, and this time, being a welcomed guest.
Being in the air, we were able to easily cut over the river, and I could see its banks below me through a thin layer of cloud. Night fell when we had passed the halfway point, and we settled ourselves in between a grouping of large stones to camp for the night. There were dozens and dozens of us, and so we scrunched together way too close for comfort. Arcon's arm was pressed up against my one side, and Solm's against my other. Luckily for the Prince, his other side was flanked by a very pretty Cleric girl, maybe a year or two older then myself, who giggled and blushed as he complemented her.
I tried not to barf.
"So apparently my idea about the Seals was incorrect, and we do not know how Elder Dul was able to utilize the power of all three."
I glanced at Arcon, not sure if he had spoken, and swallowed the bit of charred rabbit which had been assigned to me.
The air shrugged, "Solm mentioned you two were visited by Salvation last night," and the Elf went back to munching on his leaves.
"Yeah, she was kinda pissed that we told people about the Earthguard."
"We?" he asked, the air giving an innocent little twirl.
I raised a brow, "Don't start that with me, Arcon. You were there, you chimed in."
"I am only teasing you."
"Yeah, well, you might want to try smiling when you do that."
The air shrugged, "I have explained—"
"I know, I know; you explained. All you ever do is explain."
He stared in silence at the few bits of plant before him.
"Hey. Arcon?" I frowned, "Oi, Arcon. Elf dude. Oh mighty Cleric. Oh jeez, what did I do now?"
I squinted at him, "Well now I know it's definitely not nothing."
"It's just," he glanced at me, "about smiling. My emotions don't exist on the same plane as yours, and it takes more effort for me to show them in your way. I used to though. I used to smile. But over the years," his voice trailed off and I had to egg him on, "I've forgotten."
I almost choked on my last bit of meat, "Forgotten? How the hell can you forget something like that?"
He pushed the leaves around with the tip of his finger.
"Well," I blinked, "you can always learn again. It should come naturally," my eyes fell on Solm, flirting with the pretty Cleric girl, "there. Look at Solm. Just like that."
Arcon watched him for a moment, then brought his gaze to his hands and wiped them clean on his shirt, "I think it is time for bed, Xeria." And with that he turned over and shut his eyes.