A/N: Here it is, the sequel to Beyond Duty, my first high fantasy piece. You won't necessarily have to read the first one, but there are some references and relationships that might make more sense if you do.
Thank you to my prereader LyricalKris and my beta theladyingrey42. Without these two lovely ladies, this would never happen.
The story title comes from the following quote: "Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen."
Chapter 1 - The New Threats
Edward, former Protector of Aeland, takes in the scene before him with a sense of pride and happiness. Here, in what used to be his throne room and is now the Council's Chambers, there are humans, vampires, and Ainmhithe gathered together for the last night of the Great Celebration. The elegant throne that once stood upon the large dais that dominated the back of the room has been replaced by a round table, big enough to accommodate all the members of the New Council.
As he thinks of them, his gaze wanders over the gathered crowds to find them mingling with the visiting delegates from the Ainmhithe tribe and the visitors from Dreyden. Anj'la and Jasper are in an obviously heated discussion with Siobhan, while Carlisle and Sam are smiling and laughing with I'sabel and Char'l, and Er'k and Jacob are being their normal obnoxious selves and seem to be mercilessly teasing Maggie, Siobhan's young companion. Everyone's thoughts within the room seem to be filled with happiness and light.
Since the Others' Defeat just over two years ago, they have tried to keep all communication open between their lands, hoping to avoid a similar catastrophe again. For the anniversary of that terrible battle, they gather once more in Winterswijk for a week of festivities, celebrating their victory and remembering those they had lost.
This time is always a difficult one for Edward, a mixture of joy and sadness, of triumph and remorse. He will always remember the overpowering hope and happiness he felt at seeing I'sabel leading her Ainmhithe in the charge down that mountainside, but it will be forever tainted with the loss of so many that fell before the Others' army.
He glances once more at Carlisle, knowing how very close he came to losing his battle against the Other's touch. Only I'sabel's medicine and magic combined with Esme's connection were able to save him, using their powers to infuse light and warmth back into him. Some, such as Siobhan's Liam and many others, were lost to this world forever.
At that moment, there is a loud whistle from Jasper, and a smiling I'sabel raises her hand and thanks everyone for attending the celebration.
She clears her throat and steps forward into the small circle that formed as people retreated to give her room. "On this last night of festivities, I would like to say a few words. I have been so happy to see you all gathered here once again for this week of celebration. Through many hardships and losses, you all made this peace possible. Not since the olden days have we seen such happiness and prosperity across the Northern Lands. So I would like to thank you all and to raise a toast for our continued alliance and friendship."
Glasses and voices are raised, followed by a quick round of applause.
"And now, my friends, please enjoy the night, the food and the entertainment." She gestures to the far wall, where a quartet starts a soft melody that blends with the renewed conversations that fill the hall.
Edward is caught up in the mood of the crowd for a moment, and startles as a warm hand slips into his.
"Evening, my love," I'sabel whispers as she leans close and squeezes his fingers.
He leans over and kisses the top of her head. "The toast was perfect."
She giggles, covering her mouth with her free hand. "Emmett advised that there would be general mutiny if it was as long as your speech last year."
Edward wants to be offended, knowing he put too much effort into the speech last year, but he had felt such pressure at the first anniversary, the first major gathering of all of the allies since the battle. He needn't have worried, but his speech has become legend of even putting the never-sleeping vampires into a near stupor.
He tightens his hand in hers. "Well, I'm glad you took his advice seriously then."
She smiles up at him. "Definitely gives me more time to be social. Come now, let's go mingle and make sure we give a proper greeting to Siobhan. I'm so thrilled that she decided to make the journey."
Holding his hand tightly in hers, I'sabel pulls a slightly reluctant Edward across the room to join Siobhan, Carlisle and Esme.
"We are honored that you could join us this year, Siobhan," I'sabel says, releasing Edward and extending her hand to grasp Siobhan's.
The leader of Dreyden clasps I'sabel's hand tightly, and she gives a weak smile that doesn't reach her amber eyes. "Yes, I am glad we came as well. I apologize for not attending last year, but it was just too soon."
Esme places an arm around the taller female's waist. "We all understand, Siobhan. There is no shame in grief."
Siobhan's eyes fill with loss and sadness, as if some deep well within her has just been tapped and allowed to flow to the surface. "I'm not certain I should have come this year, but Maggie did insist."
I'sabel closes her eyes for a moment in concentration, and Edward can feel the familiar tingle as she pushes her magic, her warmth, physically into Siobhan. For a few moments, the vampire's pain and sadness eases, though it is only a fraction. Even with I'sabel's magic, nothing but time can heal pain as deep and wide as Siobhan's.
When I'sabel releases her hand and the tingling subsides, there is a genuine, yet still small, warm smile on Siobhan's lips. "Thank you, my dear."
"It is the least I can do."
There is a single quiet moment as each recalls the events of two years previous, but then Carlisle steers the conversation to safer topics. As the leaders begin talk of trade and travel between the two nations and the Ainmhithe, Esme glides away into the crowd for less political conversation.
Siobhan remarks that trading has definitely improved, and that her people seem to be thriving. On a less optimistic note though, her efforts to establish contacts within the southern covens has been met with suspicion or outright violence, and this is something Edward can relate to.
"Some of them seem to be warming up to our visits, but most will not even let us approach their cities or fortresses," Siobhan says, obvious frustration in her tone.
"We are not having any more luck on our front," Edward says, shaking his head. "A few of the closer covens are allowing some discussions, but do not believe the tales of our battle against the Others. It seems the attacks within their territories were never confirmed, and so many of them are destroyed every month in meaningless petty battles that a few missing humans or vampires were completely ignored."
Siobhan sighs. "Yes, we are hearing much the same thing. I do think some of them I could trust if needed, but we will need strong treaties with these covens if we ever expect their help in the future."
All within the group nod, but also realize the futility of such a bond with these covens. The members and leaders of any coven seem to change as often as the seasons, and hoping for any kind of stable relationship seems to be far-fetched.
"A few of the covens seemed willing to help," I'sabel offers.
"Yes, the smaller and weaker ones were very eager," Siobhan agrees. "They are too small to be a target for the larger battles, but sometimes get swept up in disputes that aren't theirs. I think they would be more trouble than help. Always calling on us for aid, but not able to assist us if we were in need."
Edward understands her point of view, but has hopes for these smaller covens. "I am starting negotiations with a few of them. My plan is to try to get them to cooperate amongst themselves against their neighbors. Perhaps they could even protect each other without involving us as often."
"Don't you think this could just encourage them to band together and start another war of their own?"
Edward had been sure to keep Jasper involved in all of these discussions just because of this concern, and had spent countless hours working with Jasper to anticipate such potential downfalls of this plan. "We have put many contingencies on the treaty. One is that if they do form a coalition to attack, the treaty is null and void. We just want to help protect the innocent bystanders here."
Siobhan chuckles at that. "Forever the Protector, aren't you?"
"Apparently not something that I can easily shake off." Edward smiles in return. There was a time when he wasn't much of a protector, but everything changed when I'sabel entered his life. And he never wants to go back.
"Nor would I want you to," Siobhan says. "I quite like this Edward."
A warm arm slips around his waist. "So do I," says I'sabel softly.
"Enough business for now, I think. On to happier topics," Carlisle suggests, and then expounds on the beautiful piece the quartet is now playing. Siobhan's fascination with music quickly leads them into a deep conversation about the different styles popular at the time.
Edward smiles at I'sabel and leads her away from the pair. For the rest of the evening, they drift from group to group together, enjoying the company of friends and allies and the celebration of life.
As darkness descends, the people, vampires and Ainmhithe move to the balcony to watch the planned festivities in the town itself. Torches around the fortress and along the streets provide light for the merry-making, and the guests enjoy the music and dancing that fills the town.
For a moment, Edward thinks he glimpses a dark, winged beast of some sort hovering over the town, but when he attempts to focus on it, it vanishes. Looking to his companions, none seem to have noticed the flying creature. Perhaps it was just a trick of the flickering lights.
A disturbance at the front gate draws his attention, and there are sudden shouts and guards rushing toward the wall and fortress. In the arms of one man is a small figure clad in pure white.
A hushed silence instantly falls over the gathered revelers on the balcony, each frozen in shock.
"It can't be," Jasper whispers. The one word shatters the stillness, and he rushes from the balcony.
Edward immediately joins Jasper in a full-out sprint across the fortress. They meet two guards half way down the stone steps to the courtyard, a small bundle carried in one soldier's arms.
"Emory! What happened?" Jasper says, approaching the guard at a run and lifting the small boy into his arms gently.
Edward instantly recognizes him as one of the eunuchs, a Sacred Keeper from the Oracle's temple who are duty-bound to protect and serve her and never leave her side. Then he smells the blood.
So much blood.
As Jasper cradles the boy to his chest, rivulets of red spill over his arms and splash onto the floor. The child's breaths are shallow and his heart barely flutters in his chest, and Edward knows the boy hasn't much time.
"Jasper, give Emory back to the Captain. Then, Captain, you must run with the boy to get what help you can." Edward sees the hesitation in his friend's face, but knows the boy needs immediate help if he has a chance at survival. Edward sees a vision of Alis cross Jasper's mind and knows his attention is focused on the fate of his mate, the Oracle, and not on the human dying in his arms. "I need you, Jasper. Please."
Jasper takes one last look at the dying boy and nods. The guard takes the human and rushes away, and the two vampires are alone with the remaining guard.
"How did he come upon the gate?" Jasper asks, his hard gaze matching his voice.
"I know nothing, sir. He approached the gate from the easterly road but then collapsed into unconsciousness before we could ask him his business."
The guard's memories give Edward no additional information, and he nods at Jasper's curious gaze.
"And he was covered in blood?" Jasper continues.
The guard hesitates. "Yes."
"Did you not worry about this as he approached?"
"Yes, but I thought it might be a joke. I did not realize he was one of the Sacred Keepers until the Captain told me so."
Precious moments lost. Edward knows that is enough information to act and quickly reasserts control of the situation. "Right now, soldier, I need you to gather twenty guards and meet us by the gate. Jasper, I need you to go get Emmett and I'sabel as quickly as possible."
The guard immediately leaves, but Jasper remains, every muscle tense and ready to spring.
"Edward, we need to go now." There is a desperate edge to Jasper's voice, but Edward has learned his lesson about rushing off alone into potentially dangerous situations.
"Not without reinforcements, Jasper. I have no idea what we'll be facing, and I won't risk any of you."
Edward lays a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Yes, I know. Reach out to her, feel her presence, Jasper. Is she alright?"
Jasper closes his eyes for a moment, and then his body visibly sags with a moment of relief. "Yes, she is alive. I can feel she is safe." His eyes open. "At least for now."
Edward nods and squeezes Jasper's shoulder. "Then we will leave as soon as you return."
As Jasper races back to the throne room, Edward stands on the steps, staring at the drying blood on the stone. There is a sharp, cold feeling in his gut, a physical manifestation of his worst fear.
The horrible, but real, possibility that the dark creature might not have been his imagination after all.