Edit May 2010: FFN decided to eat all the scene dividers so I'm having to go back and add them all in again. I'm also removing the review responses. NOTHING ELSE HAS BEEN ALTERED; if you've read this story before, you don't need to read it again (although you're more than welcome to).
Author's Note: Welcome to the fourth and final book of the series. I'm confident in saying that this is the favourite of almost all my readers; hell, it's my favourite, too! It was probably the most difficult one to write, as well, simply because there were so many directions I could have taken it. As far as Numair is concerned, however, this book probably isn't as bad as Emperor Mage was; he spent most of that one absolutely terrified and furious, whereas he's going to spend most of this one extremely confused and overwhelmed. It's not much of an improvement, I'll grant you – more a different style of torment! But this book should be a lot less dark than Divine Intervention was, with more humour to go with the angst – plus, there will be plenty of fluff.
This book is going to be a lot longer than the others, I think. There's a lot of extra material in the first few chapters, covering that period between the prologue at Midwinter and the battle at Midsummer; I've also added scenes throughout the rest of the story when I thought them necessary. And there's some more extra material at the end, since this book has the most nonsensical ending point of any of the four. I hope you all enjoy it. If you're a regular reader, try to leave a review, even if it's only a brief note – I know there are many readers who don't, and I'd love to read your opinion of my work. With that said, let's take a look at the prologue, when the barrier collapses and Numair realises something.
Obligatory Disclaimer: Despite my best efforts, still not mine.
Numair was dreaming, or was it a memory? He wasn't certain, and it didn't matter anyway. It was one of those strangely lucid dreams where he seemed to be on the outside, looking in, able to think as he observed it. There wasn't much to the dream, just an image of himself and Daine lying half-asleep in the grass on a warm summer night, star-gazing. His arm was around her and her head rested on his shoulder. That was all. It was very unlike his usual dreams, but he didn't want it to end because he felt so relaxed and content.
He jolted awake suddenly, and for a moment wasn't sure why. It hardly seemed fair; the details escaped him now but he'd been enjoying a peaceful dream, which after months of nightmares about Carthak made a very pleasant change, and he resented losing it. A heartbeat later he became aware of the sheer amount of power in the air, and sat up sharply as the sweat broke out down his spine; what was going on? The air was throbbing with it.
Something seemed to shift in the atmosphere, a wrenching kind of pressure that sent a wash of energy over him and almost overwhelmed him; he realised he was listening, although he couldn't hear anything as such. Dizziness took him for a moment, and when it cleared he shuddered with unease as he discovered that he could feel everyone else in the building. No, not everyone, he realised a moment later, but every mage of any kind. He could have pointed to their exact locations and said what they were doing; he could almost see them.
This was worse than the City of the Gods. He'd never felt so much power in one place before. It took only a heartbeat to determine that none of the palace mages were causing this; cautiously he let his senses expand a little further, but the magic filling the air didn't seem to have a source. The city was affected as strongly as the palace; he suspected the whole country was much the same, and hastily pulled back before he became totally overwhelmed by hundreds of mages. The dozen or so in the palace were enough.
What had happened? Blinking sweat out of his eyes, Numair focused on his friends nearby, and after a moment realised why it felt so overwhelming. It wasn't just the Gift he was feeling; those with wild magic were being affected too, and he was lucky – or unlucky – enough to be able to sense both. There was something else present too, that he couldn't identify. He looked around his room, staring towards each mage in turn, practically able to see straight through the walls; the world had rocked on its foundations.
Closing his eyes, he tried to concentrate; something fundamental had changed, something that had been the same all his life, that he had taken for granted. No, not changed; gone. He drew in a sharp breath of sudden horror as he realised what it was, and felt colder than a Midwinter dawn could account for.
He became aware of an almost expectant silence; everyone was waiting for someone else to speak and provide the voice of reason. Licking his lips nervously, he took a deep breath, held it for a moment and let it out. The tension was heightened when Kitten started keening rapidly, a sound he'd never heard the dragon make before and shouldn't have been able to hear now, given that the immortal was in Daine's room down in the stables – hundreds of yards from his own rooms. Slowly, Numair focused on his friend, who was as lost as the rest of them, seeking reassurance from the sense of her presence.
"Kit, hush," she said absently, clearly not expecting the dragon to listen to her. "Numair, what is it?" Evidently she and the others were as aware of him as he was of them. It was habit for her to ask him for an explanation when something strange happened; usually he liked that, but right now he had nothing comforting to say.
"It's the barrier," he replied softly, disturbed by the way his voice seemed to echo, a little unnerved that everyone could hear him. "The barrier between the realms," he elaborated. "It's – gone. Evaporated."
He could feel her blink, as if those long, dark lashes of hers touched his cheek. Time slowed, and a familiar feeling of unease shivered down his back. For some time now he had been increasingly aware that his friend and student was growing into a lovely young woman; it was starting to bother him to the point where he'd wondered if it was wise for them to continue working together. He'd put off thinking about it, but now when the world seemed so strange and out of sync he considered what it would be like facing the chaos to come without her at his side.
The idea caused almost physical pain, and he frowned slightly, confused for a moment. Distantly he heard Daine reply. "The immortals – they'll be on us like a ton of bricks," she said calmly, sounding completely unruffled. "I'd best get up." Despite the confusion and the worry filling him, he couldn't help but smile; the comment was so typically Daine. Her matter-of-fact tone eased the tension filling him and soothed away his worry, just as it always had. It's no wonder I love you, he thought vaguely, before his eyes widened in shock as he realised what he'd just said to himself, and widened further when he remembered what he had been dreaming before he woke.
Numair never heard if anyone else tried to say anything. Automatically he raised wards around his room, cutting himself off from everyone else once more; alone inside his head again, he shivered, staring blankly at the wall and struggling to think. He should have been thinking about the barrier, trying to work out what had happened and whether it could be fixed, but all he could think of was what he had just learned about himself; that he was in love with Daine.
In a way, he wasn't all that surprised, now he considered it. She was the sort of woman many men would love, after all; she was beautiful, intelligent, funny, strong... Even so, he had thought – hoped – that he was a better man than this. As his student, she was off limits. More than that... Daine was very mature for her age, having been through so much in her life, and it was easy to forget just how young she was. She wouldn't turn sixteen for a few weeks yet, and he would be thirty in a couple of months. Shame stirred, and he buried his head in his hands with a groan; this was too much to cope with all at once. The gods must really hate me. He had never been in love before, and it just figured that when it finally happened it would be the one woman he could not have. Someone, somewhere, must be laughing.
With an effort, he shoved aside his self-loathing and shame for a moment to try and think more clearly. It didn't really matter that much, he realised slowly, not yet. Nobody else knew how he felt, and he decided swiftly that nobody else would know. Certainly not Daine; he would not put her through this. So he'd just keep silent and watch himself carefully, that was all; it wouldn't kill him, and it might just stop him from losing a friendship that meant so much to him.
It wasn't going to be as easy as that, he knew. If this was real love of the kind he had seen between his friends – but how likely was that? He was famous for his carefree attitude towards women; he couldn't possibly be in love – it wasn't going to go away and it would be painful to endure it in silence, alone. But the alternative was to speak up and possibly end up with everyone hating him; all right, that was the worst case scenario, but it wasn't out of the realms of possibility. If he said anything, he would either lose Daine and possibly some or all of his other friends, or – worse – she might be confused and think she felt something for him; he'd seen that happen before too. So, he would say and do absolutely nothing, and his young student would not learn how he felt.
That decision made – it was going to come back to haunt him, and sooner rather than later, he knew – he tried to turn his attention to the more important problem of the barrier between the realms. Pacing back and forth in his room, he began to dress on the move as he attempted to clear his head and concentrate, but his thoughts inexorably returned to Daine as he tried once more to work out how this had happened. He had always known that his friendship with her was different from anything else in his life; right from the beginning he had trusted her more than anyone else, and he had been able to tell her things he'd never spoken of before. Numair didn't trust people easily; what had happened in Carthak the first time had badly scarred him and left him with little inclination to try and close the gap his power created between himself and others. Until meeting Daine, he had done better on his own. He hadn't exactly been happy, but he had survived well enough.
For years he had been asking himself why it was different with her. It wasn't her age; he knew people older and younger than her, and had taught young students before. He couldn't put it into words, but something about her was exactly what he needed, as if she somehow matched his old injuries and fitted into his world as though she had always been there, understanding things about him that he himself didn't know. It seemed mutual, too; what they shared was unlike anything else. Until now, he had never had reason to question it, but now it seemed vital that he pull it apart and find out why this thing had happened.
What do I know about love? he asked himself bitterly. This was one problem he couldn't puzzle out, and there was nobody he could talk to about it, no book that could give him the answer. It was too much to deal with right now, too raw, but there was no knowing when he would next get any time to sit and think and in the meantime he had to face everyone. It's probably just confusion because of the barrier. Or maybe I'm losing my mind. His head spinning, Numair left his rooms and slowly walked through the corridors in search of his friends, trying to focus on the problem of the barrier rather than his own emotional mess. One thing at a time.
The barrier had obviously weakened from being constantly torn apart by Ozorne's mages, and now, as with most spells done by mortals, it had finally run out of power. There was now nothing to hold back the immortals of the Divine Realms. He knew the spells that had been used to tear holes in the barrier, but they were no use whatsoever. He had read about the original creation of the barrier; it had been made by black robes, mainly, after all. But the actual spell used had not been recorded, for good reason no doubt, and even if it had been it would take months of study before he or anyone else could try and recreate it, months they did not have. Not to mention that doing so was likely to kill every mage involved; he was expendable, but the next two strongest mages in the country were the king and the Champion, neither of whom could be risked.
Numair's head was already aching. His mind had gone from racing to spinning in circles, getting nowhere. Maybe if he had only had to face one crisis at a time he could have coped, but he had two to deal with instead and one would have to be sorted completely on his own. It would only get harder as time went on. Shaking his head, he reached the door of the meeting room most often used by Jon and his circle of friends and advisers and went in.
He was the last to arrive, it seemed. The worried conversation broke off and everyone stared at him expectantly; he almost cursed. He was the black robe, the master of arcane knowledge and power, and now everyone was looking to him for an explanation and a solution. Well, I don't have one. His eyes automatically searched the room for Daine, part of him half-hoping that what he had realised earlier was just his imagination; no such luck, it seemed. The sight of her burned through him right down to his soul, or that was what it felt like; more than that, it made him feel guilty, and he looked away and tried not to flinch.
Everyone was still staring at him hopefully. He remembered the siege at Pirate's Swoop, as the silence grew more oppressive; like now, people had been looking to him for a miracle he didn't know how to give them. He had been scared then, remembered telling Daine so, remembered her understanding; now he looked around at his friends' faces and felt tired more than anything else. Underneath the weariness were both fear and anger, but somehow a very long way away. He hated to disappoint them, but he was as human as they were and he didn't know what to do either.
Looking around the room once more, he realised that everyone in the kingdom would be looking to this group of people for answers; they, in turn, were looking to the one person who would know the solution if there was one. Sadly, they were going to be disappointed. He smiled sourly. "Midwinter luck, everyone," he said sarcastically. We're going to need it.
Avoiding eye contact with everyone, he slunk across the room to his usual seat next to Daine; she touched his hand when he sat down, and the brief contact felt like she'd branded his skin. Suddenly he felt raw, exposed, as though his feelings were written across his face, and it took an effort to stop himself flinching away, but she needed reassurance as much as the others did. Too bad; I've none to give, not this time. Even so, he managed a brief smile before he pulled away and turned back to the room as a whole.
"Numair, what can you tell us?" Jon asked.
He shrugged. "Not much. The barrier between the mortal and divine realms no longer exists. I would guess that having all those windows torn in it had weakened its integral structure to such an extent that now, on the Solstice when it is naturally less substantial, it has simply evaporated."
"Then you don't think it was deliberately removed?" Alanna asked.
"No. I don't think such an action was possible, or it would surely have been done sooner. In any case, the fabric of the spells composing the barrier could not be removed without causing a backlash of reaction; tearing a hole is fairly simple compared to unravelling the entire working."
"Simple, he says," Harailt muttered; the other mage had also memorised the spells used to create windows in the barrier and knew just how complex they were. Jon silenced the dean with a look and turned back to Numair.
"Can it be replaced?"
"Perhaps. If we had the spell, and if we had the power to cast it, and if we had time to research it."
"Could you do it?"
Numair stared at him, realising that Jon was completely serious. "What? Mithros, no! The original spell was created by more than a dozen mages, including several black robes, that much I do know. It killed many of them in the process, but more than that, the barrier was a spell-weave of unbelievable complexity and the spells involved were not recorded. Even if I had the power, it would take months if not years to work out how to recreate it, with no guarantee that it would work."
Disappointment filled every face that he could see. Surely you didn't expect it to be that easy, he thought sourly. And why should it be him? Why did everyone think that he would magically – hah – know what to do? His headache was getting worse. When nobody said anything else, he shrugged, looking down at the tabletop. "I'm sorry," he said softly, feeling as though he had let them down.
"Is there a spell that would temporarily protect us, and buy us some time?" Alanna asked.
"I don't know. Maybe," he said unwisely.
I have to admit, I was childishly tempted to write this in a totally different style. All the canon material says is that Numair realises something he has never considered before. Every single fan assumes that it's the moment he realises he's in love with Daine; I was so, so tempted to have him realise something else instead, something really mundane like he's forgotten to give Lindhall a book he borrowed weeks ago, or he forgot to buy a new razor, or something. I might have to do that as a one-shot someday.
Anyway, disregarding my strange sense of humour, Numair's just been attacked by a blinding flash of the obvious. This takes place a couple of months after Carthak, which was at some point during the autumn; it's taken him quite a while to work it out, hasn't it? I tried to show with his dream that he's been in love with her for quite some time and his emotions have just been quietly developing in the background while his brain catches up, to the point where he himself takes it for granted until he realises what's just happened.
This is just the start for him. Quite obviously, it's only going to get worse. The next chapter continues from where this leaves off, and has a few small isolated snippets of the first couple of weeks. As always, review and let me know what you think.