28: The Truth
She awoke slowly.
The room felt hazy and cold. Piper pulled the blankets tight around her and breathed in deep.
He smelled wonderful and familiar.
The girl folded her arms over her chest, her long fingernails skimming over the expensive fabric. Her sleepy gaze fell on him, drifting over the graceful curve of his back as it rose and fell.
He was gorgeous.
The warrior's flesh was streaked with old, ugly scars, some small and parallel to one another and others twisted and solitary. Amongst the graceful contours of ribs and spine were blackening bruises that couldn't have been more than half a day old.
She didn't understand how he could be so badly injured. She had seen him fight dozens of times before and now she'd faced him herself. He was agile and a quick thinker. And yet she had seen more burns and bruises on him in the last few days than ever before.
It didn't make sense.
Piper raised a hand. She pressed her dark fingers to his olive skin, her nails tracing three wicked, spidery marks that stretched over his jagged shoulder blade.
Her golden eyes narrowed.
She remembered the time that Finn had been poking around in her lab and had touched a thunderbolt crystal she'd been trying to harness to power the heater in her room. As soon as he'd stopped shrieking and shaking like a leaf, they'd gotten him to sit still long enough to assess the damage. He had an ugly red divot at the point of contact - the back of his right hand - and the puckered marks that raced like lightning up his forearm never had faded.
Was it even remotely possible that he'd be clumsy enough to electrocute himself?
She visualized his movements: every gesture, his every step the epitome of grace.
Removing her hand from the graceful curve of his back, she slid to the edge of the bed, dangling her legs over the side. Her head was foggy and warm with sleep and her hips ached as the bones ground against each other.
The muted sound of his lungs expanding made the silence almost bearable.
Her gaze drifted to the ceiling, cloaked in shadows.
What time was it?
What day of the week was it?
She rose to her feet and looked down at the carpet. It seemed very far away.
There was a rumble of something guttural off in the distance, some great piece of machinery being dropped to the floor or a great peal of thunder drumming through the rolling, blood-red clouds.
A sudden clatter of something outside made her jump. She stared at the door, dazed. Fleetingly she wondered when Ravess would next pay a visit … and how Ace was so tolerant of her when she did.
Piper blinked, turning to the wardrobe standing across the room. The Cyclonian's breathing remained rhythmic behind her.
The door creaked ever-so-slightly as she opened it, releasing the thick smell of varnish and mahogany and pressed clothing. Her fingertips skirted over the multitude of colors and fabrics hanging before her. Pushing past them, she reached toward the back of the cupboard.
The palm of her hand scraped through dust for a second before bumping into something small and smooth. She glanced over her shoulder to find the fighter half-curled up, still a crumple of bruises and expensive sheets. She bit her lip and grasped the box.
The hand-carved wood glinted brilliantly in the light of the dull fuel crystals, releasing tiny dust particles into the air when she ran her thumb over her murky reflection. It was a stark contrast to the cold stone and metal that made up the Dark Ace's quarters and the surrounding fortress. She gave a small smile. In a way, it was more like the man who inhabited this airy, lavish suite than the suite itself.
The latch clicked audibly as she loosed it, and pale blue light spilled from the crack as the lid fell back against her palms. Her fingers closed around the pulsing, smooth source of the glow and she knew immediately what it was.
Lifting it from its container, Piper ran through it a cursory analysis almost without realizing it: an icy blue in color with clean, glossy breaks. Warm to the touch, a nine out of ten on the scale of possible temperatures, and pulsing with palpable energy. There was no other crystal quite like it.
It was a shard of the Aurora Stone.
After the amount of time it had taken to collect the remaining pieces, it surprised her that a piece of it hadn't cleared the borders of Cyclonia when the Dark Ace had attempted to use it against the sky knights. The blast had left warriors temporarily paralyzed while two others had lost limbs. It was even rumored to have changed the direction of the wind over several surrounding terras.
Had someone been sent from Cyclonis's side to collect the leftover shards as well? And if that were the case, why was he charged with keeping it? Wouldn't it be under 24-hour protection of talons who weren't charged with duties that kept them away from Cyclonia for days at a time?
Piper pursed her lips, frowning thoughtfully.
It was more likely that he'd recovered it himself, or at least without his master's knowledge.
The tiny strip of something that had been wrapped around the piece of crystal fluttered from between her fingers, catching her attention. As she gathered and re-wrapped it around the stone, she inspected the ribbon more carefully. It was worn and frayed at the edges, folded at one spot toward the end. It was a dark violet in color.
Beneath the crystal Piper found a cord of tightly-braided twine. When lifted from the box, the tiny cylindrical container attached to it slipped out from under the edge of the time-stained paper tucked next to it. She recognized the tube of cloaking crystal dust Cyclonis had worn immediately, and it sent sparks of ice down her arms. The girl held the necklace a little further away from her upon realizing how close she had been to it a few months before. The very instrument her enemy had used to deceive and befriend her was hanging from between her fingers.
Putting the necklace on the floor with slightly less care than the shard of Aurora Stone, the girl returned her gaze to the little wooden box. What caught her attention next was a thick, shiny spool of thin black film. Careful to only touch the edges, the ex-navigator held the end of the reel up to the light.
It took a few moments to make out the details on the tiny squares of transparency. There appeared to be a backdrop of sky, graduated into shadow at the upper edges of each tiny image. Miniscule blots turned out to be several rows of people, all with shoulders squared and chests puffed out until almost identical.
The only change from picture to picture appeared to be the microscopic dot near the center that Piper guessed was a very small human - perhaps a child - cloaked in fabric. It was approached slowly, picture by picture, by a much taller, more sinister shape, one with jagged fingers for a collar and a long, windblown cape. There was no doubt that this was a great leader - one that bore resemblance to Cyclonia's current ruler.
The little person's face was tilted toward the towering creature, and as Piper neared the last few inches of film, the great figure passed something long and thin to the littler one, assisting it in holding the instrument upright. It reminded her distinctly of Cyclonis's battle staff.
Was this some type of ceremony?
A succession ceremony?
Piper attempted to further scrutinize the party appearing to pass some great responsibility to the child, but at that moment the man behind her shifted a little, causing her to jolt violently from her reverie. She watched him until she was certain he was asleep, then rolled the spool of film back up and set it aside. Her heart was drumming faintly against her chest now. This was her only opportunity to investigate, and no matter how badly injured, the warrior wouldn't sleep forever.
Hands shaking, the girl reached into the box, gingerly touching a folded-up piece of paper that was warped and yellowed with age. It wasn't as old as some of the maps she'd had to transcribe onto newer rolls of parchment, but she still unfolded it with care.
The handwriting was a child's, growing and shrinking as the letters struggled to form tidy lines. The brushstrokes were from an expensive quill pen, though, and it was worded as if it was overseen by someone and written at their instruction.
Today marks the end of my Grandmother's rule. She is a smart and powerful person. One day I want to be just like her. [Maybe not as old though!]
I am writing to thank you for swearing your loyalty to us. I can tell that Grandma really likes you or else you wouldn't be my guardian. I am very excited to meet you because I know you are a great fighter and have been through a lot to come to us in Cyclonia. I know you will protect me no matter who tries to hurt me and that you will fight for our kingdom until your last breath. Hopefully that will not be for a long time.
The image of a powerful, cloaked figure swam in her mind as Piper folded the letter neatly back up and placed it on the floor. There was more to it, but she couldn't bring herself to go on. Her hands were trembling as she placed them in her lap, her eyes returning to the box. There was one item left; one that didn't require much inspection to identify.
A solitary lock of long raven hair.
There was no one who was more skilled than him. No one more swift.
Nobody could inflict such injuries on him without him knowing it was going to happen.
She placed the items in their proper places. The letter on the left; the reel of film on the right. The necklace of spent crystal dust down the middle and the Aurora Stone fragment settled atop it, angled ever-so-slightly.
Nobody could inflict such injuries on him without him knowing it was going to happen.
She sucked in air and fisted her hands in the silky black fabric on her lap.
(In the nightgown that was the perfect size for a slender, teenaged girl.)
Piper closed the lid slowly. She swallowed, setting the box carefully behind the row of expensive shirts. She closed the closet doors and sat down on the carpet.
As silence filled her mind, her heart echoed through her ears. The crashing against her chest sounded as if it was coming from somewhere very far away. She closed her eyes and took a deep, heavy breath.
The girl tried to visualize something tranquil - a sunset of lilacs and reds; a soft gray afternoon. It was in vain.
Piper folded her face into her hands and sobbed.