Author's Note: Hi everyone! Finally back with another update. I want to thank everyone for the continued interest in this story and all the alerts/favorites/reviews - you guys are awesome, and really make my day! I should be able to update this a lot more often now, and we're starting to get into some really good parts. As always, let me know what you guys think!
Laren ignored the desire to shift uncomfortably. Today's audiences felt as if they'd been dragging on for the better half of the day, and she hadn't stopped long enough this morning to have breakfast. She'd arrived just in time to report to Zachary and be asked to stand in for the morning's meetings; the fear and concern that had driven her to travel so quickly from Corsa had to be pushed aside until she was free to find out more.
Connly's letter – detailing Karigan's discovery and subsequent condition, as well as the loss of her other riders – had worked her into frenzy. She had dreaded just such information from the moment she sent her riders off on the expedition, and once she had received it there was nothing for her to do but rush back to the castle. And rushed she had, for all the good it had done her.
Her frustration with the delay was enough to make her clench her jaw; seconds later, she felt like screaming. The wild jump in her emotions set off a warning bell – she took a breath and refocused her thoughts. When the feeling subsided she cast her gaze around the room: several of the people waiting in line looked tense, but no more so than an older gentleman about half way back who looked as if he was ready to burst.
That was the other thing weighing heavily on Laren's mind: she had begun to notice a few days ago that her ability seemed to be changing. Perhaps changing wasn't the best word; growing seemed more fitting. The few towns that she had stopped in on her ride back to the city had been full of people scrambling to report strange happenings in the land. At first Laren had thought that these reports were merely coincidences, but their growing frequency and audacity had since started to give the Captain another idea: rogue magic was somehow on the loose.
These reports, along with the sudden and inexplicable amplification of her ability, left Laren with a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach.
Surprised voices, a few of which were raised in alarm, traveled over the noise of the audience chamber and drew Laren's attention to the other end of the room. The line of people waiting to be heard began to shift as the people at the back of the line began to shift away from the double doors, and just in time: the big doors swung wide open, but at first all the Captain could make out was a mass of bodies moving up the room. Weapons had coalesced out of darkness and surrounded the King, but her attention was drawn to the knot of people now moving toward them: lithe bodies clothed in sheer fabrics and gleaming armor, poised and silent.
Her surprise was mirrored and engorged by that of the general public around her, and Laren had to throw up her barriers again before the swell of emotion became too much.
Zachary seemed to realize who was in his audience hall as quickly as she did, for he stood and motioned for silence. The Weapons did not loosen the ring they had made around their King, but the few in front stepped down a step to allow him to be seen.
"Greetings, King Zachary." The Eletian in the front had spoken, and the pleasant tones of his voice seemed to subdue the crowd. "Pardon our intrusion."
"Prince Jametari – what a pleasant surprise." Zachary's voice was perfectly even and inviting, but Laren could feel the undercurrent of tension there.
Laren's tension mirrored that of her King's: what could have brought the Eletians to their doorstep, unannounced much less?
"We have come on important business that cannot wait," Jametari informed them, his eyes never leaving Zachary.
Laren's hackles raised immediately. The Eletians did not hurry; they were not rash. Whatever had driven them to their doorstep, into a crowded audience room to politely demand Zachary's attention, surely must be of a great importance. The problem, she knew, was that there was no way Zachary could grant such a request; if he did, then his people and counselors would accuse him of pandering to the Eletians at the expense of his kingdom. If he did not, he risked seriously offending a race of people that they simply could not afford to offend.
"I appreciate the urgency that has brought you here, Prince Jametari, and would be happy to discuss whatever information you would like at length; now, however, I am indisposed. My people must come first, as I'm sure you understand. I will be happy to have the Captain of my Green Riders see you to my personal study while you wait, of course."
Laren wanted to applaud Zachary for such a tactful response, but kept her eyes focused on the Eletian party instead. Surely if the information they brought was as important as they claimed, then they suffer the wait to deliver it, wouldn't they?
"I understand," the Eletian prince answered finally. "We shall wait in your study."
"Excellent. Captain Mapstone, if you would please escort our guests, I'll see that refreshments are brought straight away."
Laren bowed dutifully, thankful for the excuse to finally move again. Her day had just become infinitely more interesting.
Zachary did not make them wait long.
He positively swept into his study, Estora a few steps behind him and flanked by a Weapon. Prince Jametari was seated in the plush chair in front of his desk, his honor guard standing motionless behind him. Laren was leaning ever so slightly against the edge of his desk – or, she had been a moment ago. She had righted herself upon his entrance, but a quick nod from him told her silently to relax once more. He moved to his chair but, instead of seating himself, motioned for Estora to take the seat he had pulled out for her. He had noticed that she was looking tired today, and he was too worked up to sit.
"Forgive the delay," he started as soon as his Queen was seated. "You have my undivided attention."
"Thank you. First, I am afraid that I must make a request."
Zachary arched one eyebrow in silent curiosity.
"We would like to request the presence of the Galadheon before we continue."
Surprised, and not a little perturbed, Zachary glanced away from the Eletian prince and to his Captain. She also looked more than a little surprised at the request, but before either of them could make a reply, the prince spoke once again.
"I have been informed that she was returned you – that is correct, I hope?"
"Yes," Zachary acquiesced. "Although I cannot stress enough the toll that was exacted upon her."
"Does her health render her unable to join us?"
"Rider G'ladheon has not been out of our mending wing long; the choice of whether or not she is well enough to join us will be left to her."
Zachary rang for a runner, who happened to be a sandy haired boy of the Green Foot he had been seeing a lot lately. He sent the boy after Karigan, painfully curious as to what the reason was behind the request. He recognized two of the Eletians standing behind their prince as members of the expedition into Blackveil, although he couldn't remember their names; the third Eletian was not familiar to him.
"I was sorry to hear of the loss of your brave people in Blackveil," Zachary told them kindly.
"Thank you." Jametari was not the one who answered, however; the stern faced one with spines on the shoulders of his armor had spoken. "We are also saddened by your loss. Your warriors showed great spirit."
A knock sounded against the study door and Zachary's stomach dropped. He tried to ignore it, but the feeling was almost overwhelming. He had not seen Karigan in some days, since what he had silently taken to calling "The Incident". Was she on the other side of the door? Was she okay?
Karigan came to a halt beside the excited Green Foot runner in front of the study door, but quickly put out a hand to stop him before he could knock.
"Could you just … wait a minute?" she asked softly. "I'd like to catch my breath."
That wasn't a total lie. The young boy had set quite a blistering pace here from the Rider wing, and her leg simply would not sustain it. The glass had thankfully missed all the major veins and arteries, but it had done plenty of damage; healing was progressing slowly, and rushing about the castle was not going to help.
Not that she did much rushing these days. She had only been released from the Mending wing that week, and only with strict promises from Mara and her fellow riders that they would keep a close eye on her. The fever had broken but left her weak, and her appetite had not fully returned yet; the cut on her hand was healing well, and whatever aches and pains she had usually paled in comparison to the pain in her leg. All of which, of course, was not nearly as problematic to her as her vision was; her vision, which had insisted on retaining that irritating art of seeing two layers of everything. She had hoped that it was an effect of the fever and would wear off, but it showed no signs of doing any such thing. She was learning to live with it – and the daily headaches that accompanied it – but she was not learning to like it.
All of these things combined told her that perhaps she was not feeling up to an audience with the King in the best of circumstances. Having to remember the horrible way their last … meeting had ended made her want to scurry into a dark hole and hide, but she refused to let herself be a coward. At least, not any more of a coward than she already felt like, anyway.
"Who else is in there, Tomas?" she whispered to the boy next to her.
"The King, Queen Estora, Captain Mapstone, and some people I've never seen before," he answered with a conspiratorial wink. "Don't worry, I don't think you're in trouble."
That made her smile and she mussed the boy's hair fondly. She was doing her best to meet all the new members of the Green Foot and the Riders that had come in while she was away – it helped to take her mind off the friends she had lost.
"Alright then, better not keep them waiting. Go on."
Tomas stepped forward and knocked; Karigan passed an absent hand over Grae's feather, still tied into her hair, and tried to muster her strength.
Tomas gave her a bright grin and pushed the door open. Commanding her leg to cooperate, Karigan strode as smoothly as she could into the study.
She was shocked at the sight that greeted her.
Her eyes quickly found and catalogued the positions of Zachary, Estora and the Captain, but her breath hitched in her throat when they found the other occupants of the room. Prince Jametari would have been enough of a shock, but it was the Eletians standing behind him that really unsettled her: Telagioth, the spines on his armor as intimidating as ever, and Ealdean, his face momentarily devoid of any emotion, both stood facing her.
She could not keep her mind from recalling the last time she had seen them, amidst the fray in Argenthyne just before she smashed the Mirror mask at her feet …
"Welcome, Galadheon." Jametari's voice was warm, but she barely heard him.
Karigan tried to speak, but her throat felt thick. She took suddenly halting steps toward her friends – for surely they could be nothing else after such shared experiences – and felt betrayed by the single tear that escaped her eye.
"You're alive," she finally managed.
Telagioth moved first, coming quickly to her side in a rare show of emotion. He took her elbow and guided her over to where his counterparts stood, all three of who were smiling gently at her.
"We are, Galadheon," Ealdean said softly. "And glad to see that you are as well."
Karigan could not keep herself from reaching out to hug both Telagioth and Ealdean in turn, mildly surprised when they not only allowed such a show of emotion, but also returned it. When she finally pulled away and turned to the third Eletian, she felt as if she were trying to remember a dream she'd had many years ago; there was a feeling of familiarity, but an inability to recall why.
"You were wounded the last time we met, proud Galadheon," he told her with a quiet smile. "We Eletians were not much more than a song in a glade …"
"Somial?" she asked incredulously.
"You honor me with your memory."
She was so overjoyed to see such an unexpected face that she had to hug him as well, and was abashed to realize that she might have been lost in emotion if it wasn't for the sudden sound of someone clearing their throat. She turned – somewhat sheepishly – to find that the other members of the room were watching the rest of them with a range of expressions on their face.
Jametari had been the one to clear his throat, and Karigan did her best to straighten herself and bow as respectfully as her leg would allow.
To her great surprise, the Eletian prince inclined his head in response.
"You honor my sister." He motioned to the feather in her hair. "I am grateful. Now we may continue."
That voice made her pulse jump, but she ignored it and turned her attention to the King.
"Please have a seat." He motioned to a chair that had been placed next to the desk, right next to where her Captain stood.
Karigan made her way to the chair and tried not to focus on how strange it felt to be asked to sit when her King and her Captain remained standing. She was one of only three people sitting in the room; what did it mean that the other two were a Prince and a Queen?
"We bring very important information," Prince Jametari started. "Magic is once again loose in the world. Not just any magic, however; a sickly, twisted magic that could only have come from one place."
"Blackveil," Karigan blurted, before she could stop herself.
"Correct," Jametari answered. "Our scouts have reported increased sightings of Groundmites, farther from the wall than before, as well as a particularly cruel imitation of a hummingbird."
Karigan closed her eyes, momentarily fighting off the memory of a hummingbird impaling someone with its beak. Such creatures would wreak havoc outside the wall.
"These creatures are not the only problem, although they are formidable one. We have also had reports of strange happenings in the land itself: rivers that have started to flow backward, animals suddenly turning to stone, freezing snows one day and scorching heat the next. Have you had no such reports?"
"I have received a few," Zachary answered. "Captain Mapstone?"
"I, too, received strange reports on my return to the city, mostly of animals behaving strangely or people suddenly having an ability they did not the night before."
"Have you, as magic users, noticed no difference?"
The Prince had directed this question to Karigan and Captain Mapstone; Karigan, unsure of how to answer – or whether to answer at all – glanced first at Zachary, and then at her Captain.
"I have noticed an … amplification of my ability," Mapstone admitted, looking for Zachary's approval before she said more. "It seems to have given me the power of empathy."
Jametari nodded, as if such information was just what he'd expected. Perhaps he had been expecting it – after all, what sort of changes were the Eletians noticing, being a people whose existence revolved so wholly around magic?
"Be watchful for any negative effects of such an ability, although I do not doubt the ability itself is enough of a problem."
"How so?" Zachary queried.
"We are not meant to know another's innermost emotions. Perhaps useful at times, I will admit, such an influx of emotion would be … tiring, at best. Imagine feeling the emotion of each person in this room, at every moment."
"It doesn't seem to have gotten that far … yet," Laren corrected. "I only notice when the emotion is particularly strong, or when I am caught off guard."
"I hope, for your sake, Captain, that it stays that way. And you, Galadheon?"
Karigan wondered if the Captain could feel how uncomfortable she was in that moment, or how desperately she wanted to ignore the Prince's question. How was she supposed to answer? Was her double vision an effect of her ability gone wild? Then again, how could it be? Her ability was to fade between realms – wouldn't an amplification of that be to render herself completely invisible?
Then it occurred to her that no one in the room outside of herself, Zachary and Estora even knew about the double vision. Well, Zachary knew, at least – Karigan couldn't remember if Estora knew or not. There were several days there that she hardly remembered at all, and what she did remember was cloudy and indistinct.
Well, Captain Mapstone was in for quite the surprise.
"You may answer, Rider G'ladheon," Zachary told her softly.
She tried not to shift uncomfortably. "I have … double vision, I guess you could call it."
"Explain please," Jametari prodded when she did not continue.
"I see two versions of everyone; the one that's present, and another."
Jametari's face betrayed no emotion, but he did something she had never seen an Eletian do; he steepled his fingers and brought them up to rest under his chin.
"You see this at all times?" he questioned.
"How do you make sense of it? How do you know to whom you speak?"
Karigan felt the blood rush into her face in a furious blush, but she did not look away from the Eletians. Oddly, it was only now that she was noticing that there were not two versions of each of them; rather, the air around them seemed to shimmer, as if heated.
"I don't always. I'm getting better though, at least with people I know. There are little differences; quirks, scars that I remember … things like that."
"That would explain the eyes."
The comment was spoken so softly she almost didn't catch it. Her attention snapped away from Jametari and to Somial, who was standing quietly behind his party and watching her.
"My eyes?" Karigan inquired. "Is something wrong with them?"
"Of course not – they're beautiful."
Her blush intensified. How could an Eletian – the most beautiful beings she had ever laid eyes upon, surely – find anything about her beautiful?
Next to her chair, the Captain shifted suddenly, and Karigan wondered if the other woman had felt the way Karigan's heart jumped at hearing any part of her called beautiful.
"What Somial means to say," Jametari began, "is that there is a marked difference in your countenance, Galadheon, one that we have not seen in a very long time. In Eletia, we call simply call it the Gift; one who has been bestowed with such ability appears to always have … what do you call it? Stars in their eyes? Only, with the Gift, the stars are literal: little flecks of light, like stars in a night sky."
"You speak very reverentially of such a Gift," Estora observed, the first time she'd spoke. Karigan had forgotten she was in the room at all.
"Yes. As I said, the Gift has not been seen in a long time; the last to have been known to wield it was Laurelyn herself."
A huge slab of concrete slamming into her chest would have felt similar to the sensation now spreading through Karigan's chest. Her double vision was a gift? A gift that Laurelyn, Queen and beloved of the Eletians, had experienced all those years ago? How … why had such a gift come to her? What did it mean?
And what in the Five Hells was she supposed to do with it?
"What does this Gift do?" Captain Mapstone asked in Karigan's silence.
"It allows the person to see between worlds."
"Like my brooch allows me to travel the Gray plain?"
"Not quite. That plane is more of an intermediary, a buffer between worlds. What you are seeing, Galadheon, are the worlds themselves. You see this world – the one that we currently occupy, in this time – and the world as it could be, or was."
"So Karigan can see through time?" Estora asked.
"Not necessarily. The Gift is not linear, which is part of why it's so hard to master. It is also not restricted to reality."
"What do you mean, not restricted to reality?" Karigan finally joined.
"Your two versions of Captain Mapstone, for instance: you may see her as she is now, but the other version you see could be a manifestation of what you equate her with. For example, you might see her as older, an opponent, even a mother."
"Why don't I see two of you? Any of you?" she motioned to the assembled Eletians.
"We do not experience time as you do. What do you see?"
"The air sort of … shimmers, around you. Like an image on the surface of water that hasn't settled; something's there, but I can't quite make it out."
Karigan watched in consternation as Jametari's face registered genuine surprise; behind his chair, Ealdean and Telagioth shared a fleeting look, and Somial's grin widened.
"What did I say?" she asked quickly.
"I am … amazed that you are able to see that much, Galadheon. Were you Eletian, the Gift would manifest itself differently. The fact that you are human means you should see nothing when you look at us; that you can register any difference around us, and even that your mind is trying to make sense of it, is curious."
"Do you believe, Prince Jametari, that Rider G'ladheon's ability is an effect of this wild magic?" The question came from Zachary, who had started to pace in the area behind his desk.
"It is possible; I cannot say without more information. The point is, we believe this magic is coming straight from Blackveil, and that it will only get worse. In light of what my people tell me of the expedition to Argenthyne, I believe this is a deliberate move by Mornhavon."
"Mornhavon?" Karigan repeated darkly.
"Yes. I believe you may have trapped him, but he is not gone. I believe he is trying to bring chaos to our lands, to unsettle us and pave the way for his return."
"This is important information, indeed, but I wonder that you have brought it to us yourself, Prince Jametari."
"Your perceptiveness is a credit to you, King Zachary. Mornhavon is a threat to us all, and one I do not believe either of us can defeat on our own. Despite the high price exacted upon both of our people's, the expedition into Blackveil has assured me that our people can work effectively together. I am here to propose a joint effort – an alliance, if you will."
"Well, you have certainly given us a lot to think about and discuss. Am I correct in assuming that you will remain close while a decision is being made?"
"Then, although I know how you feel about staying in the castle, please allow me to extend the use of our extensive grounds for your party, and any others who have accompanied you."
"Thank you. As our party is small, we will gladly accept your offer."
The meeting clearly at a close, Zachary dismissed them all. Karigan rose stiffly to her feet, trying to mask a grimace as the damaged muscles in her leg pulled with the effort. Captain Mapstone placed a firm hand behind her elbow for support and she muttered a thank you, hating that it was necessary.
"May I escort you out?"
The voice that addressed her was warm and musical, and she was smiling before she even realized who was speaking. Somial stood before her, one hand extended toward her and impossibly blue eyes twinkling in a way that made her think of laughter.
"Oh, I don't want to …"
"… Be a burden?" he finished for her, and she blushed again. "The burden would be in going another minute without your presence at my side."
Karigan laughed; she couldn't help it. His response was delivered so smoothly, and with such an air of honest happiness, that she couldn't resist.
"I'm not going far," she informed him, even as she grasped his warm hand and allowed him to take hold of her elbow as they moved toward the door.
"Then perhaps I will get lost," Somial answered, and actually winked at her.
Karigan did not notice the scathing look Zachary shot at their backs as they exited, or the way Laren balled her hand into a fist to combat a sudden wave of jealousy.